Revisiting “The End of Faith”

A reprint from December 2005, in light of Monday’s column. And yes, I am having fun with this, next week’s column is already done.

I read the excerpt from his book, “The End of Faith”, which is available at the site. (I prefer to analyze a person’s thinking as revealed in their written words, as it is more difficult to hide errant logic behind rhetoric in writing.) As I mentioned to Jazz, I’m extremely underwhelmed by the guy, given that he clearly has done minimal research and appears to be the sort of idealogue who isn’t one to let demonstrable facts get in the way of his theories. I found three major errors in the first nine paragraphs alone:

“A glance at history, or at the pages of any newspaper, reveals that ideas which divide one group of human beings from another, only to unite them in slaughter, generally have their roots in religion. It seems that if our species ever eradicates itself through war, it will not be because it was written in the stars but because it was written in our books; it is what we do with words like “God” and “paradise” and “sin” in the present that will determine our future.”

This is true only if that glance at history happens to be an uneducated one focused only on the Crusades or the current global jihad. This idea reveals nothing but an ignorance of military history on the part of the person putting it forth, as the overwhelming majority of all wars in history have nothing whatsoever to do with religion. This is obvious whether one examines the history of the great nations, the great wars or the great individuals. Alexander the Great was not motivated by religion, but the desire for personal fame, Julius Caesar did not conquer Gaul because he wished to bring them to the worship of Nike, obviously, and Winston Churchill did not demand blood, sweat and tears from the English people on behalf of the Anglican church. As I’ve shown, religion has historically accounted for only 10 percent of the wars on record, and most of those were caused by Islamic expansion.

If the human race ever exterminates itself through war, it will be because of ideas in scientific textbooks, not religious or ideological texts. War and religion have been with mankind since the beginning, and only the mixed blessings of reason – science and technology – offer Man the ability to completely destroy himself. Harris even touches on this later; ironically, this leads him to draw the illogical conclusion that mankind should preserve that which endangers it and eliminate that which doesn’t.

“Once a person believes—really believes—that certain ideas can lead to eternal happiness, or to its antithesis, he cannot tolerate the possibility that the people he loves might be led astray by the blandishments of unbelievers. Certainty about the next life is simply incompatible with tolerance in this one.”

This is a baseless assertion which is demonstrably and completely untrue. The very concept of tolerance arose in an overwhelmingly Christian society, and as atheists are so fond of pointing out, the Golden Rule is not unique to Christianity. Just as the Christian God is willing to tolerate the inevitability of people being led astray, the vast majority of Christians fully accept that each individual is responsible for the eternal destiny of his own soul.

“Observations of this sort pose an immediate problem for us, however, because criticizing a person’s faith is currently taboo in every corner of our culture.”

What culture does this joker live in? This is provably absurd. George Bush, a powerful national figure who appears to be a nominal Christian from a fading mainstream denomination at best, is viciously and repeatedly criticized for his professed faith, in the national media and countless private circles around the country. For a specific example disproving the postulated “taboo”, there’s the famous criticism of the Washington Post characterizing Christians as being “poor, uneducated and easy to command.”

From this sample, I conclude that there is absolutely no reason to take Sam Harris or his book seriously. He is pseudo-intellectual pretender at best; more likely he is simply another anti-religious intellectual fraud in the tradition of Richard Dawkins.