Religion book review

A mellow place for Bobcats to discuss topics free of political posturing

Moderators: rtb, kmax, SonomaCat

Post Reply
User avatar
Posts: 23951
Joined: Tue Mar 09, 2004 7:56 pm
Location: Sonoma County, CA

Religion book review

Post by SonomaCat » Tue Sep 07, 2004 3:30 pm

This was forwarded to me on a current events list. A pretty interesting read, although I don't know that I will buy the book itself.

The End of Faith: Against Toleration

September 5, 2004

When I was 8 years old, my family was in a terrible car
accident, and my older brother almost died. The next night,
as I lay scared and sleepless on my paternal grandmother's
living-room couch, she softly explained to me who was to
blame. Not my father's Aunt Estelle, a dour, aging wild
woman and devout Baptist, who, as usual, was driving
recklessly fast. No, the reason Estelle's station wagon
flipped over and Joe was thrown out the back window was
this: my father had stopped going to church the previous
year, and God was very, very angry.

Dear old Grandma June. A compelling lack of evidence for
any sort of Higher Power may have steered my mind toward
atheism, but she put the heathen in my heart.

It's not often that I see my florid strain of atheism
expressed in any document this side of the Seine, but ''The
End of Faith'' articulates the dangers and absurdities of
organized religion so fiercely and so fearlessly that I
felt relieved as I read it, vindicated, almost personally
understood. Sam Harris presents major religious systems
like Judaism, Christianity and Islam as forms of socially
sanctioned lunacy, their fundamental tenets and rituals
irrational, archaic and, important when it comes to matters
of humanity's long-term survival, mutually incompatible. A
doctoral candidate in neuroscience at the University of
California, Los Angeles, Harris writes what a sizable
number of us think, but few are willing to say in
contemporary America: ''We have names for people who have
many beliefs for which there is no rational justification.
When their beliefs are extremely common, we call them
'religious'; otherwise, they are likely to be called 'mad,'
'psychotic' or 'delusional.' '' To cite but one example:
''Jesus Christ -- who, as it turns out, was born of a
virgin, cheated death and rose bodily into the heavens --
can now be eaten in the form of a cracker. A few Latin
words spoken over your favorite Burgundy, and you can drink
his blood as well. Is there any doubt that a lone
subscriber to these beliefs would be considered mad?'' The
danger of religious faith, he continues, ''is that it
allows otherwise normal human beings to reap the fruits of
madness and consider them holy.''

Right now, if you are even vaguely observant, or have
friends or grandmothers who are, you may be feeling not
merely irritated, as you would while reading a political
columnist with whom you disagree, but deeply offended. You
may also think it inappropriate that a mainstream newspaper
be seen as obliquely condoning an attack on religious
belief. That reaction, in Harris's view, is part of the
problem. ''Criticizing a person's faith is currently taboo
in every corner of our culture. On this subject, liberals
and conservatives have reached a rare consensus: religious
beliefs are simply beyond the scope of rational discourse.
Criticizing a person's ideas about God and the afterlife is
thought to be impolitic in a way that criticizing his ideas
about physics or history is not.''

A zippered-lip policy would be fine, a pleasant display of
the neighborly tolerance that we consider part of an
advanced democracy, Harris says, if not for the mortal
perils inherent in strong religious faith. The terrorists
who flew jet planes into the World Trade Center believed in
the holiness of their cause. The Christian apocalypticists
who are willing to risk a nuclear conflagration in the
Middle East for the sake of expediting the second coming of
Christ believe in the holiness of their cause. In Harris's
view, such fundamentalists are not misinterpreting their
religious texts or ideals. They are not defaming or
distorting their faith. To the contrary, they are taking
their religion seriously, attending to the holy texts on
which their faith is built. Unhappily for international
comity, the Good Books that undergird the world's major
religions are extraordinary anthologies of violence and
vengeance, celestial decrees that infidels must die.

In the 21st century, Harris says, when swords have been
beaten into megaton bombs, the persistence of ancient,
blood-washed theisms that emphasize their singular
righteousness and their superiority over competing faiths
poses a genuine threat to the future of humanity, if not
the biosphere: ''We can no longer ignore the fact that
billions of our neighbors believe in the metaphysics of
martyrdom, or in the literal truth of the book of
Revelation,'' he writes, ''because our neighbors are now
armed with chemical, biological and nuclear weapons.''

Harris reserves particular ire for religious moderates,
those who ''have taken the apparent high road of pluralism,
asserting the equal validity of all faiths'' and who
''imagine that the path to peace will be paved once each of
us has learned to respect the unjustified beliefs of
others.'' Religious moderates, he argues, are the ones who
thwart all efforts to criticize religious literalism. By
preaching tolerance, they become intolerant of any rational
discussion of religion and ''betray faith and reason

Harris, no pure materialist, acknowledges the human need
for a mystical dimension to life, and he conveys something
of a Buddhist slant on the nature of consciousness and
reality. But he believes that mysticism, like other forms
of knowledge, can be approached rationally and explored
with the tools of modern neuroscience, without recourse to
superstition and credulity.

''The End of Faith'' is far from perfect. Harris seems to
find ''moral relativism'' as great a sin as religious
moderation, and in the end he singles out Islam as the
reigning threat to humankind. He likens it to the gruesome,
Inquisition-style Christianity of the 13th century, yet he
never explains how Christianity became comparatively
domesticated. And on reading his insistence that it is
''time for us to admit that not all cultures are at the
same stage of moral development,'' I couldn't help but
think of Ann Coulter's morally developed suggestion that we
invade Muslim countries, kill their leaders and convert
their citizens to Christianity.

Harris also drifts into arenas of marginal relevance to his
main thesis, attacking the war against drugs here,
pacificism there, and offering a strained defense for the
use of torture in wartime that seems all the less
persuasive after Abu Ghraib. Still, this is an important
book, on a topic that, for all its inherent difficulty and
divisiveness, should not be shielded from the crucible of
human reason.

Natalie Angier has written about atheism and science for
The Times, The American Scholar and elsewhere. ... 6e3f29a307
Last edited by SonomaCat on Tue Sep 07, 2004 3:49 pm, edited 1 time in total.

Post Reply