When a reviewer describes Sam Harris’s début as “pugilistic”, he’s probably thinking about statements like this:
“Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them.”
Fair to say, Harris isn’t here to pull his punches. After reading of The End of Faith I have to say I preferred his follow up, Letter to a Christian Nation; which, if we keep to that original metaphor, coming in as it does at about a quarter of the length and with considerably tighter focus, is something of a knockout blow. The End of Faith is more of a twelve-round slug-fest and by the end, tired and swaying, the punches are starting to fall all over the place. Which is not to say he loses on points; in terms of technique Harris slaps his opponent silly; but then his opponent only seems to have one punch to his name, a haymaker with “G O D” tattooed across the knuckles, to be swung, with closed eyes, again and again and again…
I typed everything before this sentence, bar a few minor edits, at the end of last year. Now, having just finished The End of Faith for the second time, I think I’m better prepared to comment. Harris is the young buck, or foal if you will, of the so called Four Horsemen, joining Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens on the occasionally popular frontline of modern secular thought – although for the rest of time I shall be considering him d’Artagnan to their Athos, Porthos and Aramis (you may ascribe to them the roles of father-figure, over-indulgent consumer and master combatant as you see fit – there is a near perfect correlation).
The End of Faith is subtitled “Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason”, and it is the first two of these which take up the bulk of Harris’ writing, often in such tight collusion that it is hard to separate them. Clearly this is itself a key point, the argument that without the more extraordinary claims of religious faith, many of the literal sacrifices made by suicide bombers and other extremists would be both impossible to understand from outside and, perhaps, impossible to convince another person to make.
As the opening quote makes obvious, Harris is just as ready to do battle as his more established fellows, but it should also be said that he makes some concessions to the faithful opposition. From the offset he credits believers with exactly what they claim to have, genuine belief, and points out that much of the incredulous response to their actions – whether it is opposing science on principle, rioting over Danish cartoons or aiming passenger jets at architecture – comes from a failure of imagination regarding their motivation. These people are, he charges, acting quite rationally, in the context of their faith. Just because we can’t believe that mere faith is enough doesn’t mean they do.
It would seem that all is needed to save the world – and on several occasions Harris is explicit that it is civilisation which is hanging in the balance – is a change in this context. One might argue that this is exactly what a religious moderate would appear to be: a believer willing and able to reinterpret his doctrine, to look past the ancient entreaties to slaughter or rape and see only the social wisdom in his holy book, and to wish not destruction but peaceful coexistence on those who see the world differently. However, like those musketeers before him, Harris questions the validity of this; what but a secular understanding of society and a scientific understanding of the world could give any believer the perspective to differentiate right from wrong when they examine their revered text – one which is supposedly wholly right in any case?
At around this point Harris moves his focus slightly to propose that, while there may be room in the Christian faith for this kind of maneuvering, the same cannot be said of Muslim belief. Clearly there are fundamentalist believers in all religions, and just as clearly their response to a moderate stance will be much the same as to an atheistic one; but Harris suggests that the Muslim faith – and the Koran in particular – is so strongly defended against a moderate reinterpretation that it would be optimistic in the extreme to anticipate any widespread liberalisation of the religion. Nor should we expect any significant departures from the faith, whether to other religions or to outright disbelief, as the penalties to be exacted upon such a person are – well, in fact there is only one. While other belief systems do come under scrutiny, The End of Faith has its sights set quite steadily upon the Muslim issue.
On my first reading it was as the book approached its third subject, the future of reason, that I thought it began to go off the boil. Not that it wasn’t interesting, but after the pages of grim analysis dedicated to kicking over the religious rock the final two chapters lost, I felt, that tight grip on things. Beginning strongly with an essay on the science of good and evil, of ethics as divorced from unsupported claims for divine inspiration, the book culminates in Harris’ support for embracing non-dogmatic spirituality as an answer to the charge that, stripped of faith, human existence is reduced to nothing but the mechanistic or animalistic – quite a sidestep from the typical output of his backing trio. There is a noticeable change of tone here, not that he gets misty-eyed as such; he proposes that the literature of the eastern meditative traditions represents not a demand to take matters on faith, but an empirical attempt to understand the nature of consciousness.
It was only on my second read through that this seemed more appropriate in relation to what came before. Harris accuses the western religious tradition of retarding human development while promising little else but more of the same in a life after death; by making its prophets divine, adherents are told to follow their teachings and emulate their example, but not to attempt to become like them – we are merely mortal, but by a lifetime of obediently striving to be worthy we may be allowed into their presence, there to admire and praise their supernatural perfection, for ever and ever, as men. While some denominations of Buddhism, for example, do treat their founder as a God, the objective of the meditative tradition is to develop the consciousness of each individual practitioner, in this life; and the output of several millennia spent in pursuit of this goal is a developing literature in which each text reads more like a spiritual instruction manual than a grim fairy tale.
It may be that Harris has something there, at least something as worthy of dedicated examination as anything else in mankind’s ongoing quest for modern spiritual satisfaction. In any case, The End of Faith represents a deeply passionate and rigorous analysis of a serious, frightening subject; and while Letter to a Christian Nation might read in a more accessible manner, this is the more resounding piece – powerful, witty, insightful and, most of all, unapologetic in its criticism of a problem with global ramifications.