The End of Faith?

The_End_of_FaithA colleague recommended The End of Faith, by Sam Harris. In it, Harris posits that faith, in and of itself, is bad, and that we have a moral obligation to challenge it in others.

Exploring what it means to actually believe what many followers of the major monotheistic religions claim to believe, Harris maintains that the vast cruelty done historically in the name of religion is a direct and inevitable byproduct of faith itself.

In a nutshell, if you actually believe what some claim to believe, then it makes sense to burn accused witches at the stake: if the accused is innocent, she just gets to heaven faster (you’ve actually done her a favor); if she is guilty, she was going to burn for all eternity anyway (what difference a fraction of one lifetime added to eternity?), and by burning her you’ve set an example that will save other souls. If you actually believe what some claim to believe, then bombing abortion clinics just makes good sense: the sinners are going to hell regardless and saving unbaptized souls seems a fair imperative.

Add to the mix a belief that one has an affirmative duty to help others, or even just a healthy concern for the wellbeing of others, and the foregoing doesn’t just make good sense, it may actually be morally required.

Now consider what atheists actually believe, that this is the only life you or anyone else can ever be sure to have. Actually believing that results in the exultation of continued life above many other values—and the accused witch is left unburned absent some rather compelling proof. Atheists do not have the moral luxury of “killing them all and letting God sort it out.”

I was thoroughly stimulated by this book. If nothing else, it is well and compellingly written, and the scope of the author’s knowledge on a range of topics (from the most difficult philosophical questions to the mechanics of how the human brain creates memories) makes for a fascinating read.

I agree with Harris about the existence and nature of the problem he is discussing. I agree with his assessment of the danger posed by irrational religious beliefs. I agree that we must overcome our discomfort with challenging the erroneous beliefs of others. Plus, it was just good, plain entertaining to read such a scathing and unapologetic indictment of irrational religiosity.

Sam HarrisI nevertheless thought Harris overstated his case in some ways.

He uses anecdotal evidence unconvincingly in some instances, like when he asserts that Western support for Israel is grounded in anti-Semitism, and his evidence consists of several anti-Semitic publications. He indicts communism in support of his anti-faith argument, glossing over any objection to the equation of communism with religion.

He may also be contradicting himself. As I said above, his thesis is that faith in and of itself is dangerous, and his mission is to discredit any notion that it is merely what some people have faith in that is problematic. Yet more than once Harris seems to acknowledge, at least by implication, that faith in something like Jainism poses none of the problems with which he is concerned.

In the end, even after finishing End of Faith, I’m still no atheist. I’m not a Christian, a Jew, or a Muslim.

But I have faith.

That the universe is a coherent and rational and knowable place. That the human species has the cognitive ability and the technological capacity to eventually know that universe in total. That I exist and that other people exist and that we really do know and love each other.

I remain unconvinced that faith is the problem so much as what a lot of people have faith in.

What End of Faith did accomplish is challenging me to reconsider whether the beliefs I regard as spiritual have actually been arrived at through inductive and deductive reasoning, as Harris seems to believe is possible. Perhaps I have deduced the knowability of the universe from the observation that human knowledge has been increasing exponentially for all of recorded history, and no experience would compel us to conclude that it will not continue to do so.

Though I’m not sure he’s making the same point I am, Harris observes that many of self-proclaimed faithful readily point to “evidence” in support of their beliefs. In his examples, the evidence tends to be in the nature of miracles. But I’ve known ordinary religious people to point to more mundane evidence—personal signs of their god’s hand in their lives, feelings of having communicated with a higher power, answered prayers, etc.

The point is: whatever the nature of the evidence, these are reasons for belief—not belief without reasons.

Even those who truly do not have, and do not require, reason for their belief presumably adopted that belief at some point, in which case they used some criteria for adopting that belief in the stead of any other. Otherwise, the belief must either exist or not exist within any given person through no volition of his own, and presumably then should not serve as a basis for reward or punishment from the power that did or did not place it there.

In that light, to the extent End of Faith leaves me questioning my own, perhaps it proves too much. If everyone’s faith has reasons, however unconvincing they may be to others, then perhaps “faith” is not separate from reason—but rather just the word we give for inconclusive evidence.

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