The End Of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason
by Sam Harris
W.W. Norton and Company, 2004. 237 pages.
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Sam Harris’ book The End Of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason takes an unflinching look at faith and comes to the following conclusion: “The idea that any one of our religions represents the infallible word of the One True God requires an encyclopedic ignorance of history, mythology, and art even to be entertained…” This conclusion, drawn on page 16, leaves Harris with the next 221 pages to burn his point into the readers mind. In these early pages Harris wonders why it is considered impolite to question a person’s faith but it is acceptable to question a persons understanding of math, physics, or biology. Harris decides to abandon politeness.

No organized religion is left unscathed. Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists alike will see this book as attacking the very foundations of their religion. It is the universality of Harris’ criticisms that give this book credibility. So while chapter four, The Problem With Islam, seems to justify all of George W. Bush’s rantings regarding “evildoers” and “enemies of freedom” and the terrorist’s “hatred of America” Bush could never reference this text because of the salient attack Harris wages against Christianity. On the issue of stem cell research Harris mocks the religious right and the faith based resoning on this topic by observing that by “the measure of a cell’s potential, whenever the president scratches his nose he is now engaged in a diabolical culling of souls.” Because as Harris points out any cell through cloning could potentially develop into a fetus. Further Harris blows the top off of the fundamentalist Christian support of Israel pointing out that these persons expect that “Jewish power in the Holy Land” will lead to the “Second Coming” of Christ and the destruction of the Jews.

The book is not perfect, however. In chapter four, Harris examines a Pew survey of Muslim views on suicide bombings and concludes that public support for suicide bombing in Muslim countries is more pronounced than one first imagines. This he rightly denounces and asks where the moderates are? Yet within two pages he is suggesting, akin to Bush’s strike first military agenda, that the only way the West may survive Muslim extremism is if we launch a “nuclear first strike.” He has the good sense to recognize that such a plan would be an “unthinkable crime” leading to the deaths of “tens of millions” but he writes “it may be the only course of action available to us, given what Islamists believe.” He even goes as far as to wrongly analogize a nuclear first strike of this kind with “self-defense.”

He seems also to not understand the critiques of Chomsky, Arundhati Roy and Edward Said seeing them as mere apologists for Islamic extremists. “We [the West and Amierica] have surely done some terrible things in the past. Undoubtedly, we are poised to do terrible things in the future. Nothing I have written in this book should be construed as a denial of these facts, or as defense of state practices that are manifestly abhorrent.” Of course in writing this Harris ignores his own judgment that a nuclear first strike might be justifiable which causes one to wonder exactly what “state practices” he would consider “manifestly abhorrent” if not that. His problem with Chomsky and the others is that he sees them placing the actions of terrorists in killing civilians on par with the western powers “collateral” murder of civilians. Intent he argues is all important.

Intent is all important - and the valuable work that Chomsky performs is in providing an analysis of the intent of America and her allied western powers and clients. So in looking at Chomsky’s critique of the bombing of the Sudanese pharmaceutical plant Harris asks “[w]hat did the U.S. government think it was doing” when it sent a cruise missile into that facility. Harris suggests that our government made an honest mistake having assumed the facility was a “chemical weapons site used by Al Qaeda.” The mistake here is in assuming that anyone outside of a select few Clinton administration officials really knows what the intent was. One could rightly criticize the U.S. by saying that before we launch a cruise missile into an industrial facility inside another sovereign nation we should be damn sure we have the right target. But even that criticism assumes that the U.S. has the right to such super-jurrisdictional actions.

So Chomsky and Harris would agree that intent is important. The difference is that given the history of American actions around the world Chomsky finds it hard to believe that our intent is to spread freedom and to let loose the oppressed. Further, in his book 9-11, Chomsky points out the fact that one of the most “extreme fundamentalists states, […], is Saudi Arabia, a U.S. client.” And further that “Radical Islamist extremists” were favorites of the United States in the 1980s because “they were the best killers who could be found.” Harris worries about the proliferation of biological, chemical and nuclear weapons without wondering out loud which nation is most responsible for their proliferation and to which fundamentalist clients that nation has delivered these weapons.

At the end of chapter six, Harris takles The False Choice of Pacifism calling pacifism “flagrantly immoral.” Again he exposes his limitations of thought when venturing outside of the main focus of his book. He expresses what is perhaps the most common mis-perception about pacifism and that is that “pacifism is ultimately nothing more than a willingness to die, and to let others die, at the pleasure of the world’s thugs.” He relates a story from his own experience confronting a possible mugging in Prague. Instead of confronting the men who were attacking a woman and demanding that they stop he, to what he feels was his disgrace, approaches the men and asks for directions thus allowing the woman an opportunity to escape. He accusses himself by saying “I never actually oppsed their actions…” and he only finds weakness in his decision to divert the men rather than to fight them.

The truth is that he did oppose their actions merely by approaching them. More importantly, instead of treating these men like villians he approached them as human beings and engaged them in a very human situation of a stranger being lost in a foreign city. In an instant he transported them from the anti-social to the social from a willingness to harm to a willingness to help. This is the power, not the weakness of, pacifism.

If Harris had come running up to the men clearly indicating a willingness to fight it is much more likely that they, inturn, would have responded agressively. He could have been killed in the subsequent battle and he would have seen his death in that situation as being part and parcle of his bravery. By approaching the men nonagressively they could have seen a lost stranger and decided to rob him as well. If the author had been killed by these men in this way he would have blamed his nonagression. Why does the author not see that the decision to act in the first place is what took bravery.

The fact that the author seems to so terribly miss the point of pacifism is odd because another strong message that he tries to convey in this book is that there is something human in all of us that we can all recognize and that our shared humaness has nothing to do with our beliefs about any particlular invisible diety. Pacifism teaches that if we can make a human connection with our opponents they in turn will be much more likely to connect with what is human in us and treat us accordingly. If we discount our desire to make these human connections as mere weakness we are left only with the sword as the way to settle our disputes.

At the beginning of chapter four Harris explains that his arguments in his book are aimed at faith itself. At times the author may appear politically naïve yet, when he keeps focused on faith, his arguments are insightful and salient and there is much to value in this book. Harris’ assertion that it is time that the human race replaces unprovable notions of God with reason are made pointedly through numerous examples in the book. For most, this book will not be a comfortable read. If one believes in a God then much within this book is sure to offend. But the central message of the book is that we must begin to accept some disturbing news about faith and be prepared to alter our thinking if human beings are going to survive on this planet. Harris writes that as “long as it is acceptable for a person to believe that he knows how God wants everyone on earth to live, we will continue to murder one another on account of our myths.” I am sure that he and Chomsky would agree on this point.