A startling analysis of the clash of faith and reason in today's world, this historical tour of mankind's willingness to suspend reason in favor of religious beliefs, even when those beliefs are used to justify atrocities, asserts that in the shadow of weapons of mass destruction, we can not expect to survive our religious differences indefinitely. Most controversially, argues that moderate lip service to religion only blinds us to the real perils of fundamentalism. Harris also draws on new evidence from neuroscience and insights from philosophy to explore spirituality as a biological, brain-based need, and invokes that need in taking a secular humanistic approach to solving the problems of this world.
Islam is presently seen to be the biggest threat to world peace. This, he says, is because it's book advocates for either contempt towards or conversion of non-Muslims. That it promises a place in heaven for those who die in the act of either is the deal-breaker. Many are willing to die a 'martyr' for their belief that they are enacting the literal word of god. The author stresses that Muslim extremists are extreme in their religious faith in these situations. He refutes the oft-quoted 'Islam is a religion of peace' statement by arguing that there is just too much in the holy books that proves otherwise. Judaism and Christianity are also critiqued for relying heavily on a book of fiction that has no bearing on or relevance to modern life. Each faith's superiority in its claim to know the truth, he says, is as meaningless as a school yard squabble. He states unequivocally that people of faith are delusional and that it is a travesty that so much weight is given to religion in political decision-making that affects all our lives.
What I liked about this book is that the author is unafraid to make bold statements about what is essentially a taboo subject. He challenges the notion that religion or faith is not to be questioned. He looks past religion to ethics, morals and the larger philosophy of human interaction which gives a broader framework within which to assess how we all might just get along. Although I agree wholeheartedly with the Hitchens quote he endorses: "what can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence" (p176), this author took me to a place that was too far from my comfort zone in terms of respect for other people and their way of living. And this, I think, was his intention.
The first chapter, “Reason in Exile,” is about how beliefs shape one’s vision of the world. As he puts it, “There seems to be a problem with some of our beliefs – they are inexorably leading us to kill one another, because most of the people of the world believe that the Creator of the Universe wrote a book.” There are several versions of this book, each making an exclusive claim to infallibility. And a central tenet of the religions based on these versions, is that all other religions are repositories of error and must be wiped out.
Chapter 2 is “The Nature of Belief”, in which the author explores faith in the absence of evidence, reasonableness, internal coherence, civility, and candor.
Chapter 3, “In the Shadow of God” has vivid accounts of the physical misery perpetrated upon individuals throughout history in the name of Christianity. He brings the witch trials to life, and sets them in the context of religious-based beliefs in a vast, organized conspiracy of witches throughout Europe. His indictment of this Christian mindset, which also led to the Jewish Holocaust of WWII, is very easy to agree with.
Chapter 4, “The Problem with Islam,” does something similar for the Muslim faith, quoting every Koran verse that can be used to justify violence against non-Muslims.
Chapter 5, “West of Eden”, discusses the role of fundamentalist Christian thought in the West, especially America. This chapter particularly spoke to me, and clarified some of my thoughts about the fundamental importance of the separation of Church and State in our country. Since the book was written, we have seen even more of this legislative war on sin. As it says, “The idea of a victimless crime is nothing more than a judicial reprise of the Christian notion of sin…. Because we are a people of faith, taught to concern ourselves with the sinfulness of our neighbors, we have grown tolerant of irrational uses of state power.” Here I found where I agree with the conservative mantra of “Less Government” – but this chapter explained very clearly why the laws restricting homosexuals, drugs, prostitution, and other “victimless crimes” should be repealed, which I don’t think are the government rules that conservatives want less of.
Chapter 6, “A Science of Good and Evil” then goes on to explore a rational code of ethics, one based not on prohibitions against blasphemy or honoring false gods, but rather one based on the “the happiness and suffering of sentient creatures.” I found this chapter also captivating. In his repudiation of religion-based ethics, the author spends some time exploring a Muslim practice that makes me shiver. As he puts it, “Given the requisite beliefs about ‘honor,’ a man will be desperate to kill his daughter upon learning she was raped.”
Chapter 7, “Experiments in Consciousness” brings the author to consideration of spirituality, which he does not reject. He ends the book with, “Clearly, it must be possible to bring reason, spirituality, and ethics together in our thinking about the world. This would be the beginning of a rational approach to our deepest personal concerns. It would also be the end of faith.”
This is a fascinating book, hard to read, slow to read, and dogmatic in its own way. But well worth reading, and I particularly recommend the last three chapters.
One could quickly review this book by declaring that Harris has deleted "God," replaced it with "Reason," and then goes after anything in the name of "God" with great vitriol while apologizing for "Reason." "Reason" and those who are "reasonable" are presented in the best light; "faith" and "religion" always in its worst light. And, as usual, there is no doubting of doubts.
It must be said that Harris, while normally lumped in with the New Atheists and understandably so, is not a carbon copy of the Dawkins type. Harris does not believe in a God but he does recognize some level of spirituality/mysticism, falling over himself in his praise for theoretical Buddhism (and Gnosticism, and a bunch of other "mystical" types of "heresy"). He is also not an apologist for Atheism for atheism's sake but really more of an apologist for what he deems "Reason."
This "Reason" is as chimerical as the "faith" against which he argues. No one really entirely acts according to "Reason," and, according to Harris, "Reason" must never be charged with the 'sins' or "irrationality" of those who claim the mantle of Reason (vide: Nazis). Yet, in the end, Reason is the emperor without clothes-- Reason is taken to be self-evident, and there's never a justification given for why we should accept reason as understood by many in the twenty-first century as the standard for everything. It's assumed to be self-evident. Harris would do well to remember that it was not more than 150 years ago that the truth of God in Jesus Christ was similarly assumed to be self-evident by the majority of the population of America-- that, and that black people were inferior to white people (something confessed both theists and atheists/agnostics of the day, to their shame, and all justified on the basis of "rational thinking" and "science").
As usual, Harris' understanding of Christianity is quite distorted. This casts doubt on his understanding of Islam, Judaism, and a bunch of other belief systems, also. Also present is this pervasive myth circulating around the circles of the New Atheists that it is religion that is the source of all sorts of conflict, as if removing religion will somehow make everyone more rational or less tribal. All evidence against this myth is dismissed as still showing irrationality, but such is beside the point. Human beings, having religion or not, will still be irrational. Get rid of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, and people will still be irrational. Therefore, the entire thesis of the book really falls miserably flat. Sure, militant Islamism is the scourge of the world today-- but there's nothing saying that a group of irrationally tribalistic atheists won't be the next scourge.
There is much to be gained from what is written here, though. Harris is at least willing to admit the limitations of science and the reality that science cannot really explain origin and purpose of our existence, of consciousness, etc. It is valid to demand some kind of evidence for what one believes. The problem, of course, is that Harris denies the existence or ability of existence of anything beyond the natural realm, and demands that all evidence be "empirical." The demand is made only for his opponents, and he will quite often fail to provide such evidence for his own claims, both in his attacks and in his ideology.
This book tells you a lot more about Harris than about anything else-- smug arrogance about the supremacy of modern ideology and modern perspectives and a brutishly cavalier attitude toward the competence and understanding of those before him. Harris may be different from other New Atheists in many ways, but not in his complete acceptance of the Enlightenment ideology of triumphalistic rationalism, something that should have been laid to rest with all the bodies in the Holocaust of which Harris speaks.
The book is largely a prejudiced rant against Islam. Sam Harris is closer to Ann Coulter than Richard Dawkins. The historical ignorance of Mr Harris is alarming. If, as he believes, muslims are so keen to attack non-muslim countries why don't they attack Sweden rather than those countries that drew borders in the Middle East for their own imperial designs rather than the interests of the locals, those people who decided land that their forefathers lived in 2000 years ago was theirs, and those who invade countries on the other side of the world based on lies?
Then to make things worse, the books goes into praise for mysticism.
The whole point of atheism is to believe in as few things as possible and avoid things that cannot be proven. Mr Harris will presumably find some religion in the next few years and renounce atheism and then go on to write a book about it.
You may not agree with everything, but as a believer here's an author you'll have a hard time contradict without absurd reasoning. We certainly need more people like him out there.
There are no atheists in foxholes. William J. Clear.
Igitur qui desiderat pacem, praeparet bellum. Vegetius.
Screw you guys I'm going home. Eric Cartman.
Harris's key concern is pragmatic: there are religious fundamentalists happy to kill both themselves and others on the basis of their faith in particular holy books, and we must find the best way of stopping them. Harris's view is that the way to do so is to undermine all religion, not just that of the fundamentalists.
He notes that "religious tolerance", the liberal consensus which minimises conflict between believers and non-believers, and between moderates and radicals, allows fundamentalism to flourish because it creates a climate where only actions can be challenged, not the beliefs that cause them. Harris (with some tendency to exaggeration) downplays the political causes of terrorism which other writers focus on, and concentrates on the central absurdity that makes acts like suicide bombing possible - belief in reward in the afterlife.
Harris rarely minces words. The book is filled with quotable invective, which depending on your perspective you'll either find inspiring or apalling. As a rant, it's highly articulate and very well-argued.
Harris pours scorn particularly on Islam and Christianity, enumerating the false beliefs to be found in their holy books and devoting a chapter each to their flaws. Judaism gets off more lightly, and he clearly has more sympathy for Israel than its neighbours. Eastern mysticism such as Buddhism gets off most lightly of all, on the grounds that it is to some extent a tradition of empirical investigation, not just a compendium of antiquated superstitions.
There are very interesting chapters that discuss the philosophical arguments against faith - one on the nature of belief and another on ethics. Many of his arguments (e.g. in favour of torture under certain circumstances) are initially repellent, and some of his ideas are unfairly contradictory (particularly a support for Western bombing of civilians while criticising Islamic support for the same - although his grounds are reasonable, if you accept his argument that the West would avoid "collateral damage" if it could, while Islamic terrorists actively seek it out, he remains far from even-handed).
The flaws are hardly relevant, as there's no need to agree with everything here to get the main point - that only by challenging all irrational religious views can we hope to create a future free from murderous extremists.
Harris' book is hampered in part by his too tenditious style. He comes across as a zealot. He does a fine job with description, but not so hot on his presecription. What are we, rationalists, supposed to do? It's not entirely clear that freedom of conscience would be safe in the hands of Sam Harris. The last chapter is a weak attempt to explore meditation and non-religous approaches to spirtuality.
With these reservations, I do recommend reading this book.
Although an interesting book, the main tenets can be gathered from the first couple of chapters. Beyond that, the book loses coherence. Overall, there are better works on the topic, such as God is not Great and Harris' own Letter to a Christian Nation.
I have also read God is Not Great, which is another excellent book on this topic. There are definitely some commonality between the books.
The first is that in writing this book (and others), Harris puts himself forth as an expert in the area of comparative religion. But he seems unable or unwilling to distinguish religion from faith. In fact, he uses these terms interchangeably, and they are not the same thing at all. Faith is what we use to bridge the gap between what we can prove and what we believe; it neither defines nor is defined by religion. A religion is a system for applying faith. Many people who have faith in spades don't subscribe to any existing institutionalized religion. So Harris can end all the religions he pleases; that won't touch faith. And anyone who speaks of these concepts as if they were the same doesn't have my respect as someone who understands -- let alone is an expert in -- either of them.
The second aspect that ruined this book for me is fundamentalism. I see fundamentalism of any stamp -- any religion, any philosophy, any political position -- as misguided at best and detrimental to humanity at worst. Fundamentalism insists on black and white only. It takes the position, "I am right and you are wrong and there's nothing to talk about." Harris opens the book by castigating Islamic fundamentalism. But in justifying his condemnation, he demonstrates that he is as fundamentally atheistic as bin Laden is fundamentally Islamic. I do not suffer fundamentalists willingly. And I do not recommend this book.