Here was the Publishers Weekly review of Sam Harris’s 2005 book, The End of Faith:

In this sometimes simplistic and misguided book, Harris calls for the end of religious faith in the modern world. Not only does such faith lack a rational base, he argues, but even the urge for religious toleration allows a too-easy acceptance of the motives of religious fundamentalists. Religious faith, according to Harris, requires its adherents to cling irrationally to mythic stories of ideal paradisiacal worlds (heaven and hell) that provide alternatives to their own everyday worlds. Moreover, innumerable acts of violence, he argues, can be attributed to a religious faith that clings uncritically to one set of dogmas or another. Very simply, religion is a form of terrorism for Harris. Predictably, he argues that a rational and scientific view—one that relies on the power of empirical evidence to support knowledge and understanding—should replace religious faith. We no longer need gods to make laws for us when we can sensibly make them for ourselves. But Harris overstates his case by misunderstanding religious faith, as when he makes the audaciously naïve statement that “mysticism is a rational enterprise; religion is not.” As William James ably demonstrated, mysticism is far from a rational enterprise, while religion might often require rationality in order to function properly. On balance, Harris’s book generalizes so much about both religion and reason that it is ineffectual.

Despite this pretty awful review, Harris went on to minor rock star status as the darling of the New Atheists, a klatch-mate of Dawkins and Hitchens and Dennett, the world’s most famous graduate student (he received his PhD last year), and the author of another prickly fantasy called Letter to a Christian Nation (which had to have been complied from the editorial scraps left on the floor after the first book was published.)

I am happy to report that the inexhaustibly repetitious Mr Harris will reveal his thoughts on “how science can determine human values” in a new book due out in October: The Moral Landscape Patience is always advised in approaching new offerings, but the following blurb says a lot about what we can expect: “Harris foresees a time when science will no longer limit itself to merely describing what people do in the name of ‘morality’; in principle, science should be able to tell us what we ought to do to live the best lives possible.”

Cheering, yes? I do look forward to checking into my neighborhood Center for Scientific Moral Improvement to collect my monthly Betterment Plan.

The Harris Heresy is not a heresy against religion but against reason, against common sense, and against reality. First, our eyes and noses tell us that not all religions are the same. Catholics are not igniting themselves on the streets of Beirut (nor, just now, are Lebanese Muslims). Episcopalians just like to sing. Baptists prefer to pray and fry fish and call each other “Hon.” Hindus, as a fantastic new book (Nine Lives) by William Darymple suggests, are so confused by the permutations of their own religious history that it is almost farcical to call them a religion at all. And so on.

But it isn’t just that religions are “different.” Harris can slide past that little detail by arguing that the extremities of religion don’t emerge from their doctrines or rituals as much as from their common demand for faith. If, in the Bible, faith is what moves mountains, for Harris it is what causes people to bump into them: the recourse of scoundrels and imbeciles, people who are gullible enough to believe in God and murder those who don’t share their superstition. Fortunately, we now have science to explain this infantile idea to us and for a few dollars more will also arrange for things that religion used to do, inefficiently, like worry about our moral development. That’s what faith is. That’s what it does.

What? A serious Reformation was fought over the word in Europe and Christianity was split down the middle (and might have been split into nine parts) because no one could agree on what it meant.

As far as I can tell, Islam defines faith merely as “adherence,” which is the most efficient as well as the most problematical definition there is. إيمان‎ or iman implies faith in the “unseen”, but the meaning can get quite complex, since religion, over time, tends to. Still, even in the turgid formulations of later periods, iman is a distinctly non-violent idea.

As for Judaism, faith, אמונה (emunah) means something entirely different–something “supported” (not something believed). It often is associated with doing or acting in accordance with what God wants–in conservative Judaism, a huge debate between scholars who felt that this information was contained in the Law and those who felt it was “written on the heart”–people like St Paul and Jesus, to drop names. If there is a connotative meaning, it’s that emunah means “right action” and isn’t altogether different from Greek ideas of perfecting behavior–ethical craftsmanship. (The word enum, which is the noun form, actually means “craftsman.”)

When Christians sneak into the hellenistic world they use the Greek term pistis from pistuein as the preferred word for faith. It was a slippery word and altogether unlike its Hebrew ancestor. It could mean to “believe a thing to be true,” or to place trust (or confide) in someone or something, or to entrust a thing to a person. You pays your money… The ambiguity of the term throughout the New Testament shows the lexical nature of the Reformation: Who, or what do you trust? The Church, as a way of getting to God: then you’re a Catholic. –Or God, as the sole being worthy of trust and Lord over the Church? Then welcome to the First Presbyterian Church of Oklahoma City.

I won’t even mention the fact that outside these “abrahamic” traditions where no definition of faith can be decided, we have all those other traditions in which faith plays no role at all, or at least not much. Buddhism, Jain, Sikhism, Shinto, the multiple strands of “Hindu” religion obviously have ideas about what you need to accept in order to be a card-carrying member. And, yes, historically the differences in these traditions led to violence, death and destruction. But a little social history will reveal that the reasons for conflict were the natural social, linguistic and cultural tensions that arose (especially in South Asia and China) over migratory patterns that dominated the face of the globe in the first millennium before and the first millennium after the common era. That “religion” played a role in the violence came with the disputed territory, which would still have been violently contested if, by some freak and unimaginable accident of history, all of these tribes had been atheists.

Harris will know that it was the acceptance of the principle of ahimsa (“Do no harm”) that led to the conversion of Ashoka to Buddhism in the third century BCE. There are legendary elements to the story, but the bones of it are contained in a passage describing his review of the battlefield, following his triumph over the recalcitrant population of Kalinga:

What have I done? If this is a victory, what’s a defeat then? Is this a victory or a defeat? Is this justice or injustice? Is it gallantry or a rout? Is it valor to kill innocent children and women? Do I do it to widen the empire and for prosperity or to destroy the other’s kingdom and splendor? One has lost her husband, someone else a father, someone a child, someone an unborn infant…. What’s this debris of the corpses? Are these marks of victory or defeat? Are these vultures, crows, eagles the messengers of death or evil?

We do have an atheist war hero to compare Ashoka to, fortunately:Josef Stalin, lamenting the fact that Ivan the Terrible had not gone far enough in purging Russia of corruption.

Portrait of the Atheist (Stalin) as a Young Man

One of Ivan the Terrible’s mistakes was to overlook the five great feudal families. If he had annihilated those five families, there would definitely have been no Time of Troubles. But Ivan the Terrible would execute someone and then spend a long time repenting and praying. God got in his way in this matter. He ought to have been still more decisive! (The same Stalin who said, as a student himself), “God’s not unjust, he doesn’t actually exist. We’ve been deceived. If God existed, he’d have made the world more just… I’ll lend you a book and you’ll see.

I know, I know: it seems a cheap trick to compare the most humane of history’s leaders to one of the real curs when so many other comparisons could be made. After all, Ashoka did destroy Kalinga when still a “Hindu” and Stalin did give orders to deliver Jews from the concentration camps as a committed atheist.

But that’s not the point. If I were trying to create a General Theory of Disastrous Consequences on the back of the belief systems of the world’s religions, I would want to know something about what individual religions held to be true. Because nothing is clearer from the standpoint of the history of civilization than that religions believe wildly different things to be true. Some believe that God is another word for self. Some believe that god exists but that nothing can be said about (it). Some that god does not exist and some that gods exist in an infinite variety that is only a symbol of the complexity of the universe (and hence can also be expressed simply, elementally, and as a unit).

At some point, it must be merely irrational to claim that this fundamental feature of the religious experience of humankind can be boiled down to a single gaping hole in human reason: faith.

By definition, atheism can get away with murder in blaming “Religion” because it approaches religion as a unitary system, a single “problem,” the single, simple solution to which is to get rid of it (or tax churches, or arrest the pope, or insult religion as often as legally possible).

Harris and his colleagues are certainly and multiply guilty of the fallacy of composition–in this case the belief that a category can be created by generalizing from what may true of a part. But simply to call his work fallacious seems weak to me. It is also superficial and in many ways historically ignorant. Its over-generalized conclusions exhibit the confidence we often find in the under-informed or immature. But I would like to think that Sam Harris is neither, so his errors must be deliberate and heretical. After all, no one was ever roasted as a heretic for being stupid. They were burned for being willfully wrong.

Why not write about “The End of Politics” since violence is often political, at some level–or “The End of Economics,” “The End of Culture,” even “The End of Humanity”? Imagine the global chaos and violence that would ensue if the forces of darkness in Washington or Beijing elected to hold lotteries to decide internet access on a month to month basis. It would be like no terror the Inquisition could manufacture–and it would be technology and politics, not a pope, that caused it.

In the long run, there is nothing specific to religion that justifies seeing it as a total explanation for human stupidity, personal or social violence, or errors of judgment.

And I doubt that an MRI of my neural state when I wrote that last sentence will do much to persuade me otherwise.

7 thoughts on “Harrisy

  1. By definition, atheism can get away with murder in blaming “Religion” because it approaches religion as a unitary system, a single “problem,” the single, simple solution to which is to get rid of it (or tax churches, or arrest the pope, or insult religion as often as legally possible).

    To my mind, this is perhaps Chris Hedges best criticism of the New Atheists; that what they are selling is an Utopian vision.

    You’re correct to say that they treat “religion as a unitary system”. That’s a serious problem I think. Not all religions are created equal, nor do I think there is any such beast as “religion”. I agree with John Wilkins that the term is likely polysemic and means a sort of aggregate of characteristics of whatever religious tradition the person using the term is most familiar with.

  2. It’s said that a particular believer will sometimes respond to an atheist’s criticism of religion by declaring, “But that’s not MY religion. Some religions promote weird or harmful ideas, but that’s not what I believe.”

    How ironic, then, that I find myself reading this piece and protesting, “But that’s not MY atheism!”

    Nevertheless, my understanding of the so-called New Atheism views as central its assertion that “Religion,” in the broad sense, is given an inordinate share of deference and social status. Examples of clergymen pronouncing on the views their flock should hold regarding this or that public policy are common enough for me not to have to go into them.

    The other key assertion of the New Atheists, to me, has little to do with “a single gaping hole” of faith but rather with that other gaping hole: evidence. I don’t think it’s unseemly, fallacious, or heretical to ask members of a religion to defend the empirical and theoretical bases of their religion. We certainly can do so in the realms of politics, economics, and culture.

    • “But that’s not MY atheism!” Ironically, that’s how I often feel when reading New Atheists, particularly Harris. I really can’t stand the guy. Before I learned of Sam Harris’ existence, I was living in a dream-world, naively assuming that John Stuart Mills’ ridiculous Utilitarianism had been thoroughly and permanently demolished, at the latest, by Nietzsche’s moral relativism. Then I found Harris, offering warmed-over Mill and not only getting a PhD from somewhere or other, but also selling books by the truckload and being acclaimed as a genius by countless hicks. It’s all really very discouraging. I’m not sure if you got Hoffmann’s point: (Well, for that matter, I’m not sure whether you’ve looked at this blog in years or ever will again but anyhoo) he’s not criticizing New Atheists for criticizing religion, but for doing such a poor job of it, for criticizing religion while being practically illiterate in the humanities, where many very clever atheists, like Hume, like Nietzsche, to name just two, have already done a lot of useful work. He’s criticizing them for their belief that a knowledge of the so-called “hard sciences’ alone has given them a well-rounded education, for being ignorant of philosophy, history, literature besides comic books and Harry Potter, art, music, etc. I wonder whether Harris is actually completely ignorant of Mill. That would be so perfect. The sad part is that so few us would notice, and laugh.

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