The End of Faith? 

Religion is the worst of all evils, says Sam Harris... 

Last Friday I wrote about Sam Harris's The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason. I broke a personal rule by referencing it (and dismissing it) on the basis of reviews, without having read it. Well, it was in our local library, and I've read about a third of it now. It's about as irreligious a book as I've read; not surprising from its title. Its lines of argument are appallingly poor. Yet it made the New York Times bestseller list, according to several web references (which I've been unable to confirm). Why do people buy such poorly written stuff?

Harris, who received a degree in philosophy from Stanford, argues that all religion, even moderately held, is evil and the root of all kinds of violence. There are a few pages of decent reasoning in part of his chapter on the foundations and role of belief. So far, though, there has been little else in his book that has been at all tenable. There are errors of fact and failures of logic on almost every page. I've been tempted to respond to many of them, but I'll limit myself to three:

He demonstrates well enough that belief drives behavior. Then he concludes that all religious belief drives persons to dangerous behavior, ignoring the vast differences between beliefs. It is irrational to lump all religious belief into one danger-producing bin. Of course some beliefs are wrongly founded; of course some religiously motivated practice is evil. Jesus himself affirmed that quite emphatically. Does that rule out all religious belief? Of course not--unless all beliefs are the same, which they are not.

The absolute center of Christianity is Christ Himself. There are some who, in his name, commit acts that show that they neither understand nor believe what he said. This is grievous, but it's hardly an argument against him or his teachings.

Second, Harris says over and over again, on almost every page of the first chapter, that all religious belief is without evidence. I wondered as I noticed this, what would count as evidence to Harris? He completely ignores the hundreds of volumes that have been written on Christian evidences; do they mean nothing at all to him? I didn't have to wonder for long. On page 23 he writes,

"In fact, every religion preaches the truth of propositions for which no evidence is even conceivable."

From the context it's clear he's not saying that some religious beliefs are unsupportable by any conceivable evidence, but that all are. There is nothing Harris can imagine that would demonstrate the truth of any religious belief. Thus, there is nothing he can conceive of that could prove his own atheism wrong. That puts him on very shaky ground. I would explain this, but I could not do it any better than he did himself. He was speaking of religious believers here, but every word applies equally as well to his own position (page 66):

"Nothing could change about this world, or about the world of their experience, that would demonstrate the falsity of many of their core beliefs. This proves that these beliefs are not born of any examination of the world, or of the world of their experience. (They are in Karl Popper's sense, unfalsifiable.)"*

Somehow Harris fails to see he has just demolished his own case.

Third, starting on page 77:

"The most monstrous crimes against humanity have invariably been inspired by unjustified belief.... Even where such crimes have been secular, they have required the egregious credulity of entire societies to be brought off. Consider ... Stalin and Mao... communism was little more than a political religion. At the heart of its apparatus of repression and terror lurked a rigid ideology."

Just how does Harris think he can get away with sneaking that in? Communism is thoroughly atheistic and always has been. Through the entire rest of the book (so far) Harris is saying it is precisely beliefs about God or the supernatural that are the problem; if sociological phenomena flow from beliefs, he blames the supposedly irrational supernaturalist beliefs. He's found a way now to make atheism a horror as well, without making himself a bad guy in the process. How convenient. Maybe his point is that we shouldn't believe anything strongly at all.

There's so much more that could be said contra Harris, but I'll leave it at that.

What then of Sam Harris? It's one thing to agree with reviewers that his book collapses on its own arguments. It's important to be able to answer objections such as he has raised, especially when so many people have bought the book. It's another thing entirely to understand why he would write this. Why so venomous against religion--so opposed to it that he cannot even see the utter emptiness of his line of reasoning? (He reveals little of his personal life to answer the question, except for an obvious abhorrence of violence.) How many of our neighbors feel the same way? And why?

Standing against an argument is easy. Understanding--and loving--our opponents is the higher challenge. I'll keep reading. Jesus said to love our enemies, which must include an attempt to understand them. And though he would scorn me for it, I will pray for him.

*Popper says that if any claim is unfalsifiable in principle--if there is no conceivable experience, fact, reasoning, etc. that could by any stretch of imagination count as evidence against it--we have no justification for believing it. In I Corinthians 15, Paul says that if Christ did not rise from the dead, then Christianity is a miserable lie. Paul was prefiguring Popper's approach: Christianity is falsifiable in principle, for if someone had ever produced the dead body of Jesus, we would have to give up our beliefs. To be falsifiable in principle does not necessarily mean to be falsifiable in fact, for any true proposition is not actually falsifiable. 

Posted: Fri - April 22, 2005 at 06:27 AM           |

© 2004-2007 by Tom Gilson. Permission is granted to quote up to two paragraphs of any blog entry, provided that a link back to the original is included or (in print) the website address is provided. Please email me regarding longer quotes. All other rights reserved.

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