Keywords: Religion, politics, faith, reason, current affairs

Title: The End of Faith

Author: Sam Harris

Publisher: Free Press/WW Norton

ISBN: 0743268091/0393327655


This is a passionate, angry and controversial book that sets out to break the primary liberal taboo: it dares to offend. Where other commentators on the clash between the secular and the religious are content to direct their barbs are specific manifestations of religious belief or practice, Sam Harris declares that religion itself does not earn an automatic right to respect and toleration.

The central thesis of the book is that those religions of the book - Christianity, Judaism and Islam - remain dangerously at war with each other and at secular society at large. He argues, convincingly, that despite some moves to accommodation with each other, (in part driven by secular ideas), these religions each see themselves as the one true faith, worshipping the one true God. They are intrinsically opposed to each other, and this clash is the primary cause of conflict in the modern world. Furthermore, these religions are at war with those core values of the enlightenment and hence with liberal, secular democracy itself.

He acknowledges that Christianity, and to some extent liberal forms of Judaism, have moderated and obscured their militant and exclusive forms of belief, but argues that this has been forced by the success of science, economics and liberal democracy. Furthermore this relative liberalism is still founded on a core faith which is itself irrational, grounded in an ancient document (the Bible) and is not subject to change, outside ideas or progress. For all that some ecunemicalists claim, the fact is that Christianity is still at war within itself, with other religions and with secularism.

The situation with Islam is worse still. On the whole Islam has not been influenced to any great extent by liberal and secular values. It remains least open to change and new ideas, and remains mired in a literalism that is almost Medieval. Harris is blunt about the danger that Islam poses, and not just to the West but to humanity itself. Where others, particularly those Western liberals and leftists seeking to make common cause with Islam, make claims that Islam is a religion of peace and harmony, Harris argues convincingly that the overwhelming message from the Koran is war-like. The treatment of women, sexual and religious minorities, apostates and so on also come into play.

However, it is not the individual religions that Harris seeks to attack, it is the act of faith itself. In contrast to the absolute certainties of faith, Harris posits an openness to doubt, inquiry, new ideas.In other words Harris elevates the virtues of science and evolutionary change as opposed to the fixed ideas that faith is founded on. And, in stark opposition to politically correct ideas of diversity and toleration, he argues that religion is not deserving of toleration. Bad ideas, and religion is one of the worst, should not be tolerated but opposed:

Given the link between belief and action, it is clear that we can no more tolerate a diversity of religious beliefs than a diversity of beliefs about epidemiology and basic hygiene. There are still a number of cultures in which the germ theory of disease has yet to out in an appearance, where people suffer from a debilitating ignorance on most matters relevant to their physical health. Do we "tolerate" these beliefs?

Does that mean that Harris is a complete materialist? Does he reject all forms of religious or spiritual belief? In point of fact Harris is very clear that he recognises that people have needs that are 'spiritual' in some way. In his view these needs are met in some forms of Eastern mysticism. Here he parts company with materialists and atheists, but in his view because these forms of belief are not founded on the idea of a single, personal God, with a God-given book of rules to follow, they do not lead to war and conflict in the same way that the religions of the book do. He also believes that the states of mind that these mystical beliefs induce are amenable to scientific exploration.

Harris writes with passion about his ideas, and though at times his grasp of history is shaky (such as his views on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict), there is no doubting the force of his argument. In the West secularism is increasingly on the defensive, attacked by militant Christians, Jews and Muslims, attacked by 'liberals' who place toleration as the primary political principle and by a society who in believing in nothing is ready to believe in anything. That said, this is required reading.

Contents © London Book Review 2006. Published June 28 2006