The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason

Can one be religious while simultaneously claiming to be an ardent atheist? This is what Sam Harris manages to accomplish in his rant, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason by Sam Harris (New York: WW Norton & Co., 2004, 2005).

Throughout much of this simplistic argument, Harris uses blunt, hard-hitting prose to make his case for why abrahamic religions, particularly Islam, are the most dangerous element of modern life. According to the author, religious faith is flawed because it requires its adherents to cling irrationally to mythic stories of heaven and hell. He then reminds us how religion does more harm than good by being treated as infallible and unquestionable, that people espouse their religion as promoting peace while they engage in the most hateful and unchristian behaviors against those who hold different beliefs. Worse, they think their religion calls for such behavior. Very simply put, religion is a form of terrorism in the author's eyes.

But Harris is not just focused on debunking Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, though he makes his spirited arguments with great clarity. By the later chapters, Harris abandons his attack when he turns a surprisingly uncritical eye towards reincarnation, Buddism, eastern spirituality and other new age mysticisms, baldly declaring that "mysticism is a rational enterprise. Religion is not" (p. 221). He mocks the physicalism of the majority of scientists who believe that our mental and spiritual lives are wholly dependent upon the workings of the brain, claiming this is an irrational "article of faith" that science can neither prove nor disprove. Astonishingly, he then goes on to give full credence to reports of near-death experiences and leaves open the possibility that the soul can survive the death of the body, all while claiming that we don't know what happens after death.

I was disappointed with this book. Basically, Harris's open hostility towards religious dogma is selectively focused on abrahamic faiths, and he abandons his tirade when considering the qualities of eastern mysticism. That, to me, means that he is not an atheist at all.

Sam Harris is a graduate in philosophy from Stanford University. He has studied both Eastern and Western religious traditions, along with a variety of spiritual disciplines for twenty years. He is now completing a doctorate in neuroscience, studying the neural basis of belief, disbelief, and uncertainty.

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Yup, and that is why I cannot make myself finish this book and will thus never review it. You said it exactly the way I would have.

Strictly speaking, atheism is a lack of belief in a God (or gods). So there's nothing saying an atheist can't believe or credit supernatural/mystical phenomean. They merely don't think there's a diety involved.

By DragonScholar (not verified) on 21 Feb 2007 #permalink

Basically, Harris is attacking woo that he doesn't like and praising as "rational" the New Age and Eastern mystical woo that he does happen to like. In the process, he swallows whole dubious "evidence" for the latter without a drop of skepticism.

Harris is, quite simply, a pseudoskeptical hypocrite.

"Mysticism is a rational enterprise"?????

That goes against the very definition of it, as far back as the philosophical struggles on Iona more than 2500 years ago.

Sheesh, Harris, go back and read Cosmos for crying out loud.

Reminds me of Today's Matt Lauer. As a reporter and interviewer he can be highly skeptical and cynical against product claims and politicians making statements, but put a little psychic pseudoscience in front of him in a pretty outfit (that English psychic from Lifetime, for example) and he'll fall for the cold read trick hook, line, and sinker.

By Joe Shelby (not verified) on 21 Feb 2007 #permalink

In Harris's defense, he carefully defines what he means by 'mysticism' and it's not the usual definition. What bothered me most about the end of the book was that he glossed over a lot of stuff in a paragraph or two and then proceeded as if he'd actually convinced me that (a) annihilation of the 'self, ego, I' is possible and (b) being possible, it's a Good Thing. He hadn't. He'd just said so.

Thanks for the review. This book is off my list.

Stick to posting pictures, ok?

hey-- was that Sam himself??

Sam Harris is the opposite of a traditional skeptic.

Traditionally, skeptics debunked specific paranormal claims but tended to avoid making scientific pronouncements on the existence of God.

(Dawkins challenged that tradition when he declared at the 1992 CSICOP conference that religious faith is a "virus.")

Most of the "New Atheists" (Dawkins, Stenger, Dennett) combine traditional skepticism with anti-theism.

Sam Harris, in contrast, is an anti-theist who accepts - or at least entertains - paranormal claims.

Bob,

now you're telling me?! Now I'm afraid of stepping out of my apartment in fear of Grrlscientist stabbing me with a pickax handle !

What a load of crap. Harris believes that the human mind experiences things through meditation or religion. Obviously this is true. You can be an atheist and still seek "spiritual" experiences through music, art, nature, and so forth. That does not mean you believe in the god of music, art, nature, etc. Your argument is ridiculous.

Speaking as an ex fundamentalist, Harris hit the nail on the head. Those who don't get the book, well, don't get it. That's all there is to it.

Harris is, quite simply, a pseudoskeptical hypocrite.

Thanks for the review. I was going to buy and read this book, likely during my next round of on-line book purchasing (on-line because it's cheaper, in widely-separated rounds because it's still expensive enough I have to limit myself). I have seen several quite positive reviews - I wonder if those reviewers simply ignored the last part of the book and focussed on the widely-admired first part.

Speaking as an ex fundamentalist, Harris hit the nail on the head. Those who don't get the book, well, don't get it. That's all there is to it.

I suspect you've only traded one form of fundamentalism for another. "Just not getting it" is not a valid argument for anything - SHOW ME THE EVIDENCE. The definition of a skeptic is one who will change their mind when presented with the evidence. You're abandoning reason and argument for mindless dismissal of all contrary opinions as unenlightened.

Salon magazine interview with Sam Harris 7/7/06:
http://www.salon.com/books/int/2006/07/07/harris/

Steve Paulson: "It sounds like you're open-minded to the possibility of telepathy -- things that we might classify as psychic. ..."

Harris: "Yeah, and there's a lot of data out there that's treated in most circles like intellectual pornography that attests to there being a real phenomenon here. ... But I've had the kinds of experiences that everyone has had that seem to confirm telepathy or the fact that minds can influence other minds."

Paulson: "Tell me about one of those experiences."

Harris: "Oh, just knowing who's calling when that person hasn't called you in years. ... I know many people who've had even more bizarre experiences. But that does not rise to the level of scientific evidence. The only way to determine if it really exists is to look in a disinterested and sustained way at all of the evidence."

you claim that i and a bunch of others here "don't get it" so why don't you explain it, then, writerdd?

Sam Harris:
http://www.samharris.org/site/full_text/response-to-controversy2/

"My views on the paranormal--ESP, reincarnation, etc.:

My position on the paranormal is this: While there have been many frauds in the history of parapsychology, I believe that this field of study has been unfairly stigmatized. If some experimental psychologists want to spend their days studying telepathy, or the effects of prayer, I will be interested to know what they find out. And if it is true that toddlers occasionally start speaking in ancient languages (as Ian Stevenson alleges), I would like to know about it. However, I have not spent any time attempting to authenticate the data put forward in books like Dean Radin's The Conscious Universe or Ian Stevenson's 20 Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation. The fact that I have not spent any time on this should suggest how worthy of my time I think such a project would be. Still, I found these books interesting, and I cannot categorically dismiss their contents in the way that I can dismiss the claims of religious dogmatists."

I'm just started reading the book and am only fifty pages into it but I already have an inkling of his mysticism leanings. I enjoyed Dawkins' "The God Delusion" much more.

DragonScholar: Well put! I considered myself a Neo-Pagan for several years, and had quite a few "interesting" experiences in that community. But one of the lessons of modern neuropsychology is that experience is not necessarily "transparent". When I've seen the glow of a magic circle, or gone on a shamanic journey, I'm quite certain that something interesting was happening -- but it was not necessarily what a literal interpretation of my perceptions would have implied.

By David Harmon (not verified) on 21 Feb 2007 #permalink

Speaking as an ex fundamentalist, Harris hit the nail on the head. Those who don't get the book, well, don't get it. That's all there is to it.

I assume that you mean "getting it" includes accepting uncritically highly dubious "evidence" for reincarnation and psychich phenomenon, which Sam Harris definitely does?

No, I "get" Harris all too well. He's a woo-meister disguised as a skeptic.

Atheists should be careful not to dogmatize and cast other freethinkers as heretics - it smacks to much of dogmatism.