Thursday, October 26, 2006

SAM HARRIS : “THE END OF FAITH” book

I’ve pretty much been a proud atheist since the age of 9, which is when my father told me he didn’t believe in god and would never practice religion. That just sounded so right to me, and so in tune with the non-spiritual, non-magical realities of the world I’d experienced to date, that I never looked back. I was also brought up in as secular a household as one can imagine, save for a sole Sunday when my mom, in an attempt, I believe, to integrate into the local (Sacramento, CA) community, took my sister & I to the neighborhood Catholic (!) church. I say (!) because our forebears are true-blue Connecticut Yankee/WASPs. Her attempt to church us lasted just that one morning, at which point she retreated and it was never a concern again. In college I joined the campus atheist society, which was really two geeks with chips on their shoulders & who were at cultlike & dogmatic as the hardest-core Pentecostals or whatever. I quit after two meetings. Throughout my adulthood and until the past few years, I’ve defended the religious and the believers from the attacks of those who would stereotype and marginalize them, primarily from those on the Left who squawked incessantly like paranoid Chicken Littles about “the religious right”, and who made it a point to include anyone who’d set foot in a church in that category. “Religion has been such a force for good in the world, despite what I might think about it”, I’d say, along with the other familiar trope, “20th-century religions are essentially about peace and tolerance; the days of the Inquisition are over”.

In 2006, with all due respect, I’m less convinced about the benignity of religion than ever. My defensive responses to those who criticize Christian proselytizers, Jewish paradise-builders and especially Islamic murderers are fewer and more far-between than they used to be. Part of the reason I’m waking up, as many quietly secular atheists are, is surely the increased use of suicide bombing of innocents in the name of religion & martyrdom, which is so sickening and depraved it stamps out all reason, moderation & inquiry – and which is surely part of its appeal to those who employ it. It has forced me to look more critically at the myths and fairy tales mankind has told itself throughout time to ward off fear of death and discomfort, and what I see looks more and more preposterous – and often dangerous – every time I look. SAM HARRIS, too, has decided to speak up, for fear of being overwhelmed with guilt and shame for not having done so. His 2005 book “The End of Faith” posits that we only have less than a generation’s worth of time to wean world society off the suffocating succor of religion, lest we find ourselves on the brink of nuclear annihilation by scripture-quoting lunatics. Heady stuff, but very difficult for me to refute in light of the evidence and modern trends. His policy in advancing his point of view is pretty scorched-earth. First, he carefully takes apart the tenets of religious belief, which is not difficult. I actually laughed out loud at the absurdity of some of the arguments for the existence of an all-knowing, all-seeing creator, myths we’re all aware of but too cowed to approach in the manner of critical, skeptical inquiry which they deserve. I won’t go into detail, but Harris is withering, much as Bertrand Russell and Christopher Hitchens and other famous atheists have been when tackling the same subject, and when I read their arguments I can’t help but applaud at their unapologetic eloquence in saying what I think and what I believe needs to be said. His several pages quoting verbatim what the Koran says must be done to unbelievers and infidels is terrifying, and should be required reading for anyone who ever asked the simpleton question, “Why do they hate us?”

Harris believes that even benign “faith” and anything short of active hostility toward all religion is dangerous. I see his point, but I can’t say that I’m enthusiastic in joining him full-bore in the crusade. I think it has more to do with my own live-and-let-live, non-confrontational makeup than anything else; I can’t honestly stand in front of a true believer and ask them refute their faith by the power of my more superior logic, anymore than I’d slap a drink out of someone’s hand at a straight-edge show. I have met and I know dozens of loving and good and intelligent people whose ability to believe in their supposed creator runs the gamut from outwardly-professed belief to agnosticism. I do not believe that their moderate religiosity is keeping them from opposing immoderate religiosity in all its forms – particularly the cult of the martyr or jihadi. Sure, I’d rather they gave up the comfort of the fairy tale and join me on the other side, but we probably agree on far more than we disagree about.

One quirk of Harris’ book that really made me think was his exploration of a non-religious spirituality in the last third of the book. While this section is the least persuasive and the most lacking in a coherent argument, I am with Harris in that there is a “spiritual” dimension in humanity that doesn’t rely on believing the creationist myths that have been handed to us. For Harris, this spirituality and ability to shape the contours of his own mind is revealed in meditation, believe it or not, and in pushing the mind in directions that don’t come naturally. I too believe that we can naturally do more than we typically do with the immensely powerful brains we’ve been given, and that what can be found in so doing can in fact have a “spiritual” dimension to it. Those – not me – who look to non-creationist Eastern philosophies and to yoga & similar disciplines are & have been doing this for eons, with professed results that border on the transcendent. I believe them, but personally lack the need for spiritual guidance at this point. Maybe when the fear of death really kicks in, or when something happens that tests my inherent reliance on reason and logic, I’ll reach like so many others for the easy comfort and illogical answers found in organized religion. I hope, though, that I reach for this book and others with its heft instead, and then get by with the complex wits given to each of us, which are solely our responsibilities to master and bring to their fullest potential without crutches and self-placed handicaps.

9 comments:

tom said...

“Why do they hate us?” Of course a ridiculous question deserves an equally ridiculous answer, but using “verbatim” quotes from religious writings of questionable origin, written over 1,000 years ago in foreign, antiquated languages, to help make a point on contemporary issues that in the end are more about geopolitics (or whatever you choose to call it) than God stuff, well, that’s beyond ridiculous, and only one indication that this book is more than just a bit suspect. You could say the author’s doing exactly the same as the close-reading fundamentalists he’s rallying against. Does he also depict Islam as one monolithic religion with as its sole pillar the koran, the very root of all evil, some sort of demented middle-eastern predecessor of the Anarchist Cookbook? Well, probably not, that would be too much fun, but still I can smell the generalizations and cliches on Islam from here. Do people read non-fiction to be objectively informed on things they’re not or only vaguely familiar with or, conciously or not, to seek confirmation of their prejudices and fears?

Anonymous said...

Jay, as a fellow atheist I agree with a lot of what you wrote. I haven't read the Harris book, but I suspect that he is being naive in hoping that our country will consciously reject christianity. First, I think that the USA is slowly becoming a godless society, or at least a less christian-centric one, but I think it's happening at an almost subconscious level, and that it will happen over the next several generations as more people grow up in households like yours (and mine). I think it would be a mistake to encourage or even draw attention to it.

Second, I think that intolerant religious zealots (be they christian or muslim) already consider the USA a godless country, and it would be even more dangerous for the US to throw out the remaining signs and signifiers of "one nation under god".

You wrote of your christian acquaintances, "I do not believe that their moderate religiosity is keeping them from opposing immoderate religiosity." Nor will moderation protect us as a country from religious zealots who terrorize us from within (anti-abortionists) or without, because even in opposition to outright tyranny we Americans are apathetic.

Anonymous said...

By the way, your sentence "First, he carefully takes apart the tenants of religious belief" should read "TENETS of religious belief".

SDD said...

Hey, the other day I picked up The Fall "In a Hole" double live CD with bonus tracks brand spanking new for $7.95!!!
Maybe there IS a God!!!!

Henrik said...

Bah, most pious muslims don't hate america or consider it a godless society. An iranian mulla I talked to very much prefered americans over the chinese, because at least the americans believe in god unlike the chinese who hate all things religious and spiritual. His advice for me was "...study the Koran. Even if you don't believe in god it has a lot of good stuff in it". Sounds like good advice to me.

Jay said...

Henrik, you'll have to help me understand why that's good advice. You could read thousands and thousands of books - why is this one work of fiction the mullah recommends more worthy of intense study than others?

Anonymous said...

I think most religious texts have something of worth (or at least interest) in them, be it the bible, talmud, koran, gita or whatever. The koran covers a lot of ground, it's not just a manual on how to kill infidels. The best way to read it, in my opinion, is alongside a book of commentary that can explain how the philosophical advice it gives is used today. It is not an easy book to read on it's own, the same is true for the bible. Telling me to read the koran was good advice, since I was already interested in spiritual matters/philosophy, history etc etc. If those things bores you or offends you, maybe you shouldn't read any religious text at all.
PS. I'm not a muslim or active participant in any relion, just interested in it.

Henrik said...

um, sorry that was me...

MoeLarryAndJesus said...

The US is currently under the influence of insane Christian fundamentalists to a degree almost no one would have believed possible 30 years ago. I'm not talking about Jimmy Carter-type believers, I'm talking about total nutjobs who think Armageddon and the Rapture are upon us. Thirty years ago these people would have been laughed at openly - now they're mainstream Repiglicans. That's the context Harris's book has been written in, and good for him.

He has a follow-up called "Letter to a Christian Nation" - a short book prompted by the intense reaction to "The End of Faith."