Sam Harris
The End of Faith
W. W. Norton and Company, 2006
348 pages, trade paperback, $13.95
ISBN 0-393-32765-5
Reviewed by Gary McGath
Copyright 2006 by Gary McGath

As fanatical Islam and fanatical Christianity play an increasingly frightening role in the modern world, a good new book pointing out the fallacies of religion would be welcome. But Sam Harris's The End of Faith isn't it. While he makes some very good points on his central thesis, he embeds it in a philosophy which is as senseless and destructive as the religions he seeks to refute.

His central point is that belief must be based on reasons:

To believe that God exists is to believe that I stand in some relation to his existence such that his existence is itself the reason for my belief. There must be some causal connection, or an appearance thereof, between the fact in question and my acceptance of it.

Therefore, religious beliefs should be as legitimate a subject of debate as beliefs about science. Basing them on faith simply constitutes arbitrary assertion. "Faith is what credulity becomes when it finally achieves escape velocity from the constraints of terrestrial discourse." "Moderate" religion in the western world attempts to put all religious beliefs on an equal footing, which amounts to ignoring the more troublesome areas of belief.

This is fine. But Harris goes on to address related issues, and in the process offers a philosophy which is far more detached from reality and frightening than the typical American Christian is.

"Mysticism," says Harris, "is a rational enterprise." And by mysticism he doesn't mean some bland combination of yoga and meditation. He denies that people exist as personal identities.

[I]t is not merely that the component of our experience that we call "I" cannot be found; it is that it actually disappears when looked for in a rigorous way.

Or a few pages later:

You see this book. You hear a variety of sounds. You feel the sensations of your body in space. And then thoughts of past and future arise, endure for a time, and pass away.
If you will persistently look for the subject of your experience, however, its absence may become apparent.

Harris uses forms of the word "you" six times in that brief passage, to claim that there is no such entity as "you." That is literally gibberish. It's as if he were to say, "I am addressing the Loch Ness Monster, who is listening to me, and there is no Loch Ness Monster. And no me."

Moreover, experience of reality is impossible to the "you" that doesn't exist: "No human being has ever experienced an objective world, or even a world at all."

In ethics, Harris tries to avoid both authoritarianism and relativism. Rand and other philosophers have shown how this can be done by starting from the requirements of the individual. But having denied the very existence of the self, he can't do this. He founders into a doctrine of ethical intuition, and attempts to build warm, fuzzy feelings into a rigorous science of ethics:

The fact that we want the people we love to be happy, and are made happy by love in turn, is an empirical observation. But such observations are the stuff of nascent science. What about people who do not love others, who see no value in it, and yet claim to be perfectly happy? Do such people even exist? Perhaps they do. Does this play havoc with a realistic account of ethics? No more so than an inability to understand the special theory of relativity would cast doubt upon modern physics.

But what kind of "love" and "happiness" is possible when one does not regard human beings as "selves," when one maintains that the pronoun "I" represents an illusion? Harris's comments on tolerance give a clue.

He declares that "we can no more tolerate a diversity of religious beliefs than a diversity of beliefs about epidemiology and basic hygiene," and asks rhetorically, "Should Muslims really be free to believe that the Creator of the universe is concerned about hemlines?"

And just in case there's any doubt about what he means, he tells us:

Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them.

Starting from an attempt to refute the causes of sectarian violence, Harris ends up endorsing the execution of heretics. I'll take a sane religious believer over Harris any day, thank you.

Last revised December 10, 2006

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