A 2006 Gallup poll found 92 percent of Americans surveyed could be classified as those who believe in God, 4 percent are not sure, while only 3 percent are convinced that God does not exist (Newport, 2006b). The wide consensus, however, stops there. Gallup polling further revealed that 40 percent of Protestants and 45 percent of non-Catholic Christians believe that the Bible is the literal word of God, and must be taken as is, “word for word”.
(Newport, 2007, ¶ 1). Moreover, in the debate of creationism versus evolutionism, 46 percent of Americans believe that God created the human being in its present form, sometime within the last 10,000 years, and that the human being has not evolved at all since that point (Newport, 2006a). Among Abrahamic religions, only 51 percent of Americans believe that Jews, Christians, and Muslims worship the same God (Harris Poll, 2006). Finally, only about half of Americans, 49 percent, believe that Muslims who live in the United States are loyal to the country, and 39 percent of Americans agree with requiring Muslims in the United States, even U.S. citizens who are Muslim, to carry a special identification that identifies them as Muslim, as a measure to protect further terrorist attacks (Saad, 2006).
Many scholars have written in support of religion and its effects (Foster, 1833; Jungel, 2001/2006; Tegg, 1827). Early writings of Foster maintain that even with all the costs and negative consequences of religion, one should accept religion because of the promise of eternal safety and happiness. Tegg argued that without religion, “man is comparatively, a being of narrow views … and has but little motive to attend to any thing beyond himself, and the lowest gratifications” (p. 3). Later works, including that of Jungel, contends that “the gospel helps human existence achieve its true potential” (p. 262). In addition to effects of religion on individuals, some have argued that a democracy can benefit from religion, faith, or religious values (Fradkin, 2000; West, 2004). Fradkin posited that a successful democracy requires the moral instruction that is grounded in religious faith. West discussed how the Jewish prophetic commitment to justice can be a weapon against antidemocratic dogmas. These are among the many examples of works published in favor of religion and faith.
At the same time, however, just as many scholars, if not more, have written in opposition to religion and its effects (Hitchens, 2007; Kimball, 2002, Nietzsche, 1886/2004; Otto, 1923/1958). Hitchens summarized religion as, among other characteristics, “violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism and tribalism and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children” (p. 56). According to Nietzsche, the Christian faith requires the sacrifice of all freedoms, pride, and self-confidence. Nietzsche further found that religious obsession is dangerous, and that wherever it has existed, three unhealthy prescriptions of religion have followed. These three prescriptions, Nietzsche continued, are “solitude, fasting, and sexual abstinence” (p. 62). Kimball found that religion has the ability to become evil. Specifically, if those who believe in a specific religion begin believing in its “absolute truth claims” (p. 44), Kimball asserted that there would be potential for those religious individuals to become evil. Kimball argued that fundamentalist Christians who attack and sometimes kill abortion doctors are an example of this evil produced by religion. Among many other scholars and philosophers, the above presented convincing arguments against religion.
The debate on religion and faith has intensified in the post-9/11 era and became more divisive due to stark differences in opinions held by individuals on sociopolitical issues from abortion to gay rights. The debate is both a domestic and international one. Furthermore, the debate is happening across and within religions and religious denominations, along with those who doubt the existence of God and the rationality of a religious belief system; and seek a day when they observe the end of faith.
Sam Harris, doctoral candidate in neuroscience at the University of California, Los Angeles, wrote The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason (2004), which examined the paradoxical relationship between religion and reason. In the book, Harris argued that the world is in a doomed state since most people believe that God, or any other substitution of that word, has written a book. The problem, however, is that many different copies of the text exist, and all claim to be complete and the true word of this God. While most individuals, according to Harris, are willing to respect other faiths, they still believe that the others are wrong; thus, they will end by suffering eternal damnation unless they are rescued. Besides Harris’ main issue with religion and faith, he found it equally troubling that at the present time, “religious beliefs are simply beyond the scope of rational discourse” (p. 13). For individuals who are open to this dialogue, Harris has an interesting historical, sociological, biological, and political discussion. Harris concluded by offering an alternative to the current irrational and dangerous faith systems of individuals, specifically those who have faith in the Abrahamic religions. In my analysis of his assessment of faith and belief systems, the current role of religion in society, potential implications, and alternative solutions, I find Harris to be at a level beyond pure skepticism or disbelief in God; instead, he is on the side of the religious debate that subscribes to the belief that faith and religion lack reason and will ultimately result in the end of human existence if individuals do not respond.
The purpose of this paper is to review Harris’ (2004) book, The End of Faith, within the context of the ongoing debate over religion and faith. This review includes an analysis of the purpose and the primary arguments that Harris presented in his book, and a discussion of the implication and limitations of the book.
Purpose and Primary Arguments
Harris’ purpose for writing The End of Faith was to make the reader aware of the irrationality involved in an individual’s faith in religion and the negative consequences resulting in hundreds, if not thousands, of years of people’s belief in God and the book He allegedly wrote. Taking what history has taught us about individuals’ actions due to religious beliefs, add nuclear weapons, and Harris contended that the result is a recipe for mass destruction and the possibility of the end to civilization. Harris maintained that there are alternatives, and he urged his readers to question belief systems and faith before it becomes too late.
In an interview with Laura Sheahen (n.d.) of Beliefnet, Harris explained that he wrote the book to combat the relaxed standards toward religious beliefs; these include “standards of reasonableness and evidence that we rely on in every other area of our lives” ( ¶ 3). He further argued that “these beliefs are not very contaminated with good evidence” ( ¶ 3). In an interview conducted on the O’Reilly Factor with host Bill O’Reilly (2004), Harris explained that his issue and purpose for writing the book was also to combat political correctness. Harris stated that there was a deal-breaker taking place between the United States and Islam. Harris maintained that this “political correctness … could well get many of us killed” (Video recording).
Harris warned in The End of Faith that if people do not begin to stand up for sound reason, “collateral damage, of various sorts, will be a part of our future for many years to come” (p. 203). Unfortunately, according to Harris, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction no longer leaves us “the option of waging this war with swords” (p. 203). Against Islamic states in particular, Harris argued that history tells us that “the only thing likely to ensure our survival may be a nuclear first strike of our own” (p. 129).
After studying a variety of spirituality disciplines, including Western and Eastern religions for the last 20 years, Harris presented a thorough examination of both people’s current and historical faith and beliefs in relation to varying religions. Although the faith and belief systems of those individuals, Harris argued, lack rational reason and logic, they are sustained because individuals are not allowed to question each other’s or their own faith. He sought to show that the relaxed attitude taken towards faith and religion is both incorrect and dangerous.
Throughout the book, Harris discussed the nature of a belief system, issues with Christianity through a historical perspective and through the lens of the Holocaust and the Inquisition, and issues with Islam and our future relations with it. He also discussed concepts of ethics, morality, pacifism, and religious liberalism, among other subject matters. Combined, religion has had an impact on individuals in the United States, and Harris presented the various implications of religion and faith on U.S. law and society. Finally, Harris concluded and offered alternatives derived from Eastern spirituality, Buddhism, and meditation. The following sections provide a discussion of Harris’ primary arguments relating to the nature of those individuals who hold their beliefs based on faith, issues with Christianity, and issues with Islam.
The Illogic of Faith Based Beliefs
Harris made various arguments and conclusions relating to those who hold their beliefs based on faith as evidence. One of the first propositions that Harris presented is that there is a relationship between beliefs and behavior; he argued that sometimes the belief may even justify murder. In later research, Harris, Sheth, and Cohen (2007) discovered through brain-scan imaging that belief and disbelief, in contrast to uncertainty, provide information to the brain that can lead to emotions and behavior. Understanding that a relationship exists and that the corresponding behavior could be catastrophic, Harris argued against basing beliefs on faith, as he did not contend that faith is a source of knowledge, whereas he believed that science is a source of knowledge. However, Russell (2006) argued that science and the empirical world are traditionally taken as sources of knowledge because they are observable. On the other hand, the spiritual world, one that is unobservable, can be an equally valid source of knowledge created through faith. This is due to the fact that “God, having thus been removed from the physical cosmos, is of no interest to the rational process” (p. 39).
Harris further maintained that the idea of liberalism or moderation within a religion is a myth. He claimed that due to economics, individuals who are considered moderates just simply ignore or very loosely interpret most of the word of God. In addition, he contended that certain passages in scripture cannot be argued to be symbolic for something else. Finally, as claims by individuals of the accuracy of their religious beliefs and their faith increase, Harris argued, their tolerance toward others decreases.
Others have noted and agree with the claims presented by Harris (Peek & Brown, 1980; Telegraph, 2003; Ward, 2005). An article in the Telegraph presented a story on Christian missionaries from the United States traveling to Iraq to respond to the “war on souls” ( ¶ 1). Having no respect for the fact that Iraq is 97 percent Muslim, the missionaries sought to “save Muslims from their ‘false’ religion” ( ¶ 2). Peek and Brown found that sexism by White Protestants toward women was related to biblical biases toward women. On the other hand, an opposing study of 326 college students from three different universities in the United States found no significant relationship between level of someone’s religious beliefs and that individual’s stereotyping of sex roles (Barrish & Welch, 1980). Finally, Ward believes that there is a link between an individual’s level of religiosity and their level of homophobia.
Christianity and a History of Violence
In his book, Harris portrayed two historical events tied to Christianity: the Inquisition and the Holocaust. He did this to portray instances of the negative consequences of religious faith. Although the Inquisition has always had a connection to religion, Harris argued that the Holocaust, even though many believe it to be “an entirely secular phenomenon” (p. 79), was actually not. In fact, Harris believed that it was directly tied to Christianity. Harris argued that Christians saw Jews as not just any plain heretics but “heretics who explicitly repudiate the divinity of Jesus Christ” (p. 87). Ultimately, the Nazis, according to Harris, were agents of religion, directly inheriting their actions from medieval Christian beliefs.
Support by scholars for the claims made by Harris on Christianity and its connection to a history of violence are mostly consistent. This is especially true with the issue of the Holocaust. However, Yeadon (2007) disagreed, stating that none of the top Nazis was devoted to Christianity or any other religion. Although Hitler died as a member of the Catholic Church, Yeadon maintained that he could not be classified as a devout follower. Other scholars did find a relationship between Christianity and the Holocaust (Goldhagen, 2002; Steigmann-Gall, 2003). Steigmann-Gall found that Christianity did not stand in the way of the Holocaust. In fact, the author asserted that Christianity was actually the central theme of the war. The fight against the German enemies, Jews in particular, as seen by the subjects studied by the author, “constituted a war in the name of Christianity” (p. 261). Furthermore, Goldhagen found that the Catholic Church acted as a political organization in the time of the Holocaust and its actions and in some cases inactions assisted the Germans and their allies to slaughter Jews.
Islam and Violence
Another major theme discussed in Harris’ book is the idea of the problem with Islam. Harris’ argument on this subject can be summarized by his assertion that “we are at war with Islam” (Harris, p. 109). Harris claimed that Muslims are inherently fundamentalist and pose a danger to our society. Like the violence in the name of Christianity during the Inquisition and the Holocaust, Harris believed that Muslim individuals are ready for a jihad (holy war) with all infidels (unbelievers). The difference now, according to Harris, is they are on the brink of getting long-range nuclear weapons, and Pakistan already has nuclear weapons. Furthermore, Harris believed, based on his interpretation of the Koran, that the Muslim faith allows and even encourages suicide bombings. He disagreed with those who refer to Islam as a religion of peace. Finally, Harris is worried that “our recent adventures in Iraq provide all the rationale an aspiring martyr needs to wage jihad against ‘the friends of Satan’ for decades to come” (p. 112).
Trends in certain countries, specifically Iraq, provide evidence that Harris was correct in his assessment of Muslims and their hatred toward us for being in their land. A poll conducted by BBC News (2007) of 2,112 Iraqis in 450 neighborhoods revealed that 93 percent of Sunni Arabs support attacks on coalition forces. While there is a stark difference between Sunnis support of attacks on coalition forces and Shias support, the numbers are still high. The same poll revealed that 50 percent of the Shias surveyed supported attacking coalition forces.
A number of scholars agree with Harris that Islam is not the peaceful religion that most assume it to be and that it could potentially be a danger to our nation (Pipes, 2001; Roborgh, 2007). In the aftermath of September 11, 2001, Pipes (2001) argued that the Muslims in the United States are not like any other groups. On the contrary, Pipes believed that a large number of Muslims share the same hatred toward America that the suicide hijackers did, and that they ultimately want to transform the United States into a strict Islamic state. Roborgh (2007) maintained that even though sections of the Koran could be read and interpreted as a call for violence and war, he urged Islamists to take those words in historical context.
In an interview with Jamie Glazov (2006), Gregory Davis, author of a book on Islam and the religions’ war against the rest of the world, Davis contended that the West has an allusion about Muslims. He claimed that the West sees Islam as any other religion, similar to Christianity, when it fact it is not. He contended that Islam is not just a religious faith, but also a political plan to organize the world in a particular manner. Davis explained that Islam has existed in a violent form for over 1,400 years, and the West will not be able to undo that.
On the other hand, Esposito (2002) claimed that the Koran neither supports nor requires any terrorist or violent activity. However, Esposito did admit that the Koran allows and even requires “Muslims to defend themselves and their families, religion and community from aggression” (p. 119). Harris (2004) pointed to exactly that requirement as the danger within Islam since they see the West as aggressors who are trying to keep their families and children away from Islam. Esposito defended the Koran as he presented that Hebrew Scriptures and the Old Testament also refers to the protection of religion, fighting and war. However, Esposito did not put his claims in the historical context. Whereas the Christian fundamentalist war already happened with the Inquisition, the Muslim war on the aggressors is just beginning at a time when weapons of mass destruction are available.
Peters (2002) disagreed with Harris and believed that we need to take the same approach to Islam as we took to communism in the Cold War. He argued that we have to roll back their way of thinking, and it must happen on their land. However, Peters did not consider the fact that the Cold War remained relatively peaceful because of the philosophy of mutual assured destruction. This does not apply to Muslims as the reward for self-destruction is attained in the afterlife.
In his discussion of the issues with faith and belief in religion, Harris (2004) mentioned the implications involved in not taking any actions. His book was published shortly after the beginning of the Iraq war, and now there is no end in sight. The United States and President George W. Bush believed that the war would be short and American victory was inevitable. However, we now realize that the war is not against terrorists; it is against a belief system. If we are not able to challenge the belief system of Muslims, and no serious presidential contender has done so as it would be political suicide, the war has no end in sight.
Polling data cited in this article and in the book reveal that more Muslims are finding it acceptable to attack the West and the United States in particular as we are the aggressors. Nacos (2003) found that the strategy used by the perpetrators of 9/11 could become a model for future attacks. Furthermore, Hoffman (2003) found that “some momentous new operation” may have already been set in motion and is now “slowly and inexorably unfolding” (p. 439).
Faith in religion, even if there was no threat by Islam, has also led to implications in the United States. According to Harris, one of the implications is the laws in this country. Specifically, Harris discussed how sodomy laws and victimless crimes are directly linked to the Bible and religion. Other scholars have also noted similar implications to reasonless faith in religion. Carter (2004) noted that two members of the Supreme Court have stated that they do not believe in the separation of church and state. However, Carter disagreed with Harris as he did not see this as an issue. He stated that it is impossible to separate the person from that individual’s faith, and a person’s faith will drive certain beliefs about law and society. The danger with Carter’s argument, however, is that the line of separation between church and state begins to disappear.
Harris (2004) provided an informative discussion of issues with faith and religion and the effects of them both domestically and internationally. However, The End of Faith does suffer from a number of limitations. First, Harris’ view on Eastern spirituality is deceiving. The Eastern teachings are, in my opinion, a form of religion and require reasonless faith. He also targeted Western religions while giving credit to religions like Jianism. Hitchens (2007) believed that the East does not offer any solutions to the question of religion. Furthermore, Hitchens pointed out members of the Eastern spiritualities who have also chosen a fundamentalist and violent path. He stated that some in the Eastern faiths, to achieve “eternal peace” are preaching that individuals “exercise the benevolent forcefulness of ‘killing one in order that many may live’” (p. 203).
Another limitation of Harris’ book is that Harris provided no real solution to combating those who have faith in their religion. Are individuals supposed to challenge everyone’s faith at all times? A second solution Harris offered, throwing the bomb first, is not only criminal but would further the intolerance and violence of one religion toward another.
Harris’ (2004) arguments on morality and ethics are ethnocentric. Although one can accurately argue against relativism, he provided no basis for his argument. Harris automatically assumed that the West has surpassed the ethics of developing Muslim states. With all the violence, hate, and war present in Western societies, what will history say about the ethics of the West a hundred years from now? Harris, taking the approach of Nostradamus, predicted the future for the readers, “Come back in a hundred years, and … we will have some scientifically astute things to say about ethics” (p. 146).
A final limitation of Harris (2004) is his lack of focus on education to combat the faith problem. Although he contended that Muslim fundamentalists are educated, he did not take into account that research shows that the more individuals become economically prosperous and educated, the less they are certain or have little doubt in the existence of God (Newport, 2006b). Polling in the United States (Newport, 2006b) shows that 92 percent of those who have only a high school diploma or less are certain or have little doubt in the existence of God, as compared to 77 percent of those who have postgraduate degrees. When it comes to economics, 91 percent of those with an annual household income of under $50,000 are certain or have little doubt in the existence of God, as compared to 75% of those whose annual household incomes are above $150,000.
Sam Harris’ The End of Faith is a well-presented examination of the issues surrounding faith in religious doctrines. He presented arguments on the issues surrounding belief systems, Christianity and violence, Islam and violence, implications, and recommendations, among other topics. These arguments were supported well by other scholars who study faith and religion. Overall, the reader is left with an understanding of faith and faith-based knowledge, and the reader is better able to challenge these doctrines and their dangerous outcomes.
Although The End of Faith suffers from limitations, Harris still provided important historical, sociological, biological, and political arguments surrounding faith. He called for individuals to devote themselves to alternative practices like meditation. Ultimately, those who read the book will better understand the urgency behind ending faith and bringing back reason into the national and international discourse.
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