The End of Faith.
LETTER TO A CHRISTIAN NATION by Sam Harris. New York: W. W. Norton, 2006. 100 pages. Hardcover; $16.95. ISBN: 0307265773.
Harris has written a book which has caused quite a stir in the erudite and lay world. It has appeared on the New York Times bestsellers' list, was the winner of the 2005 PEN/ Martha Albrand Award for Nonfiction, and has been widely praised and criticized. It is entitled The End of Faith and its subtitle describes its content: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason.
This volume is in the genre of Thomas Paine's The Age of Reason. Like Paine, Harris thinks religions are irrational, based on falsehoods, anti-scientific, intolerant, and with a notable exception, contradictory. Religions "are in perverse agreement on one point of fundamental importance, however: 'respect' for other faiths, or for other views of unbelievers, is not an attitude that God endorses" (p. 13).
Harris also thinks that the taboo on criticizing religions puts them beyond the scope of rational discourse. That is why, he writes, the religious motive of the suicide bomber is always discounted in favor of economic, personal, or political ones. Technological advances, writes Harris, have made religion a threat to humanity's survival. Harris labels as a myth the belief that religion is the sine qua non for goodness. To summarize, Harris rejects religious claims of inspired books, miraculous acts, incarnate messiahs, or a blissful after-life.
Harris complains that various religious beliefs "are all equally uncontaminated by evidence," that exclusivity claimed by a religion "requires an encyclopedic ignorance of history, mythology, and art," that religious myths "float entirely free of reason and evidence," that religious faith is "a desperate marriage of hope and ignorance" and that religious beliefs "should not survive an elementary school education" (pp. 15-17, 21, 25). Additionally, writes Harris, "It is time we admitted . that there is no evidence that any of our (religious) books was authored by the Creator of the universe" (p. 45). Interestingly, even with such dramatic statements, some atheists have attacked Harris for not being aggressive enough in his denunciation of religion, especially spirituality.
What would Harris substitute for religion? He explains: "It is nowhere written, however, that human beings must be irrational . Seeing this, we can begin to divest ourselves of many of the reasons we currently have to kill one another" (p. 43). Harris thinks moderate religionists, because they serve as a cover for extremists, advance evil. Harris argues for a rational world view based on science. "Science will not remain mute on spiritual and ethical questions for long. Even now, we can see the first stirs among psychologists and neuroscientists of what one day may become a genuinely rational approach to these matters." (p. 43).
After Harris wrote The End of Faith, he got a lot of mail. He explains its content:
Thousands of people have written to tell me that I am wrong not to believe in God. The most hostile of these communications have come from Christians. This is ironic, as Christians generally imagine that no faith imparts the virtues of love and forgiveness more effectively than their own. The truth is that many who claim to be transformed by Christ's love are deeply, even murderously, intolerant of criticism. While we may want to ascribe this to human nature, it is clear that such hatred draws considerable support from the Bible. How do I know this? The most disturbed of my correspondents always cite chapter and verse (p. vii).
His answers to theists, mainly Christian conservatives, are contained in his follower-up volume entitled Letter to a Christian Nation.
Christian apologists from the earliest days of Christianity (e.g., Justin Martyr, Tertullian) have defended Christianity against its critics, and there are many active today (check the Internet for a long list). For believers who like to engage in cognitive pugilism with an adversarial text, Harris's books will provide all the material that is required. Readers may find some of Harris's criticisms of religion right on target. More likely, however, religious readers will find a lot to debate and many assumptions to question. For instance, Harris thinks, considering the history of the world, religion has done far more bad than good. At any rate, readers will have exposure to what a contemporary, secular humanist thinks of religion, science, and the future of humankind.
Harris, a Stanford University graduate, has studied philosophy, religious traditions, and spiritual disciplines. His pursuit of a doctorate in neuroscience focuses on the neural basis of belief, disbelief, and uncertainty.
Reviewed by Richard Ruble, John Brown University, Siloam Springs, AR 72761.
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|Title Annotation:||Letter to a Christian Nation|
|Publication:||Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 1, 2007|
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