Review of Sam Harris’ book "The End of Faith”

1.2 billion Muslims. 13 million Jews. 2.1 billion Christians. The problem: they are all potential terrorist. Their blind faith in the sacredness of holy books creates deadly schism between adherents and non-believers, unleashing waves of bloodbath that have tainted red human history since time immemorial. The solution: scrap out their irrational belief. 1-2-3 problem solved. Isn’t that too good/nasty to be true Mr. Harris?

Caveat 1: If humans were all around rational, they would be a plain commodity for lions for the greater part of their little experiment on earth. Rationalizing eats time away from the precious moments you have to act instinctively -and thus not always rationally- when threatened. It may be uplifting for us to call ourselves rational beings, but unbeknownst to even the most staunchest rationalist lurks beneath remnants of unsavory behavior. Take the belief we all harbour when suddenly faced with imminent death: we are not dead-worthy. The neighbor maybe, but not I, Moi. Something will intervene to save us. Maybe we’ve watched too many Hollywood movies where the extras meet death but the main actor keeps dodging it. This irrational feeling of immortality is ingrained in us sometimes to the very end. Saying more: an atheist who adheres to the quip “evolution is smarter than you” should ask himself why hasn’t Godarwin not eliminated irrationality, charged of superfluousness. Could it be that the belief in our immortality is a necessary for our survival, or should I dare say, at the very least a prerequisite of well-being? Hasn’t the existentialist angst derive from a failure to believe an irrational belief?

Religion, aside its other colors, could be ascribed the very same aforementioned belief, albeit fashioned out in a more structured, complex and encompassing package. Through a different angle, it could be seen as providing an invaluable service to humanity: Be what you may on earth, I’ll take care of the rest. Is it fair to negate religion based upon the premise that it is irrational? Since it is profundly useful in providing a raison d’etre for many people, it would be a delicate endeavor given the absence of any competing substitute. It may come a day when the monopoly of religion over immortality becomes tackled by the advent of science in its offering of a down-to-earth immortality. But that would be dismissing unjustly Religion’s other worthy attributes.

Caveat 2: The geneticist Richards Dawkins theorizes that our sense of morality is innate to our species. Our good versus bad pendulum has been calibrated by thousands of years of evolutionary time. This trait, not surprising, is also found in other animals as well. Consider the following experiment. Two rats are put in a cage. One is attached to electric wires, the other has access to a feeding tube. When the rat considers it’s lunch time, he goes for it. Pang, the other rat gets zapped. What the? He goes for it again, the other rat gets slighty mored cooked. After the association has been made in the brain of the feeding rat, he will stop eating to prevent the other rat from suffering. His sense of empathy, of good versus bad, gets jumpstarted. Incidentally enough, rats have no observable religion of any sort. Dawkins may be on to something…

If Dawkins heeded his theory, however, he would loosen his enthusiasm for Harris’ thesis, one that proclaims all or most religious adherents are sowed with some terrorist potentiality. The Bible, the Torah and the Koran are laden with conflictual information about moral duties. Some of these them clearly violate our sense of innate morality. When Yahweh urges us to stone to death those who extinguish a fire during Shabbat, a normal Jew wouldn’t bow to the literal version of the punishment. That is because he has his own moral compass to tell him what should or shouldn’t be taken literally. This jew adopts various worthy moral duties into his Jewish tradition. The same goes for the vast majority of Christians, Muslims and other theists alike.

Harris’ case against the wrath of religion could be lain on a minority of adherents who have adopted a literal interpretation of scriptures. These are individuals whose education and wealth has given them the luxury of perusing the books and who, through their own moraly skewed interpretations, justify their loathsome actions by stating this was the will of God. Humanity’s bloody history has been trampled by such minority forces, usurping all that lay beneath them to quench their grievances or shore up their personal ambitions. The institutionalization and state endoctrination of certain religious interpretations by a few have led many to perish in religious pogroms and inquisitions. Religious fanaticism is a wrathful and deadly wind. But to blame all religious adherents for the plight of humanity is pushing the thesis onto a slippery slope.

Religion is a big part of one’s identity. On a societal level, religion gives an identity to whole communities. The house of Islam. The Copts in Egypt. The Mormons in America. It is thus a source of ingroup/outgroup codification which in some instances can exacerbate palpable and already existing tensions. In sports, a struggle, we root for the team with which we identify best. In life, a struggle, we do the same. It is human nature to create ingroup/outgroup bubbles. Take the history of Islam. Before the coming of Mohamed, the barren Arabian peninsula was ruled by rival tribal factions vying for scarce resources. In the seventh century, Islam’s tentacles wraped the region under a common identity. Desert nomads then not only left footprints on sand alone but on human history. However great, the Islamic community was not immune to forces beyond its comprehension. Rivalry for power drew contours along trivial differences, sprouting a Shia and a Sunni community Mohamed couldn’t have foreseen. Religion itself fell prey to groupism. Scraping out religion then would not solve human propensity to create antagonistic identities.

The problems of the world cannot be encased in a box called religion. It is tempting to do so, sweet and simple, an MSG loaded candy for an atheist like Harris. The situation, regretfully, is much more complex than it appears.

It comes to my light that this essay doesn’t follow a standard ”review” of a book, but then again, who says I actually know how to write one..


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One response to “Review of Sam Harris’ book "The End of Faith”

  1. Anders

    Botrus Botrus Bielinski – hahaha!!! Love it!!!!

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