Monday, June 4, 2007

The End of Faith by Sam Harris - A Review

I finished the paperback edition a short time ago. This is a book even atheists should dislike. It is a thinly disguised jeremiad against Islam, not radical Islam or Islamism, but Islam, written by a man suffering (I hope) from a severe case of 9/11 PTSD.

[I am not and never have been a Muslim and, quite frankly, of the faiths I have studied, Islam would rank fairly low on the ladder of those that I might find personally attractive.]

Impetus (excuse?) for the Book
On page 152, (all page numbers refer to the Norton paperback edition), Harris asserts that "weapons of mass destruction will soon be available to anyone who wants them." Obviously, this is the line we have been fed by the Bush Administration. It has not occurred to Harris, or many others for that matter, that these Doomsday predictions are being thrown about by the same people who assured us that Sadaam had weapons of mass destruction that could be launched against the U.S. in 15 minutes. Perhaps I am being too cynical, but isn't it possible that these scenarios have been advanced as cover for the destruction of our civil liberties? Consider the following: The sarin gas attack in Japan has not been repeated. The anthrax attack in the U.S. has not been repeated (and, indeed, has disappeared from public discourse). The 9/11 attack was shocking in the way it turned a form of transportation into a weapon, but required no arcane knowledge. All of the attacks since 9/11 have also used conventional weapons. In short: if it is so easy to build and deploy weapons of mass destruction, where are they? Why are individuals still blowing themselves up with body-bombs? Korea, a modern, industrial country, has spent years developing a nuclear capability that, based on its recent tests, could not exactly be called a major success. But Al Qaeda terrorists hiding out in the mountains of Pakistan can build one? Maybe these Doomsday scenarios are not politically-inspired nightmares, but I think it reasonable to ask just how trustworthy the predictions are.

Still, it is clear that Harris is truly afraid and that fear is the obvious justification and explanation for this book.

His Solutions to the Threat
On page 129, he writes: "What will we do if an Islamist regime, which grows dewy-eyed at the mere mention of paradise, ever acquires long-range nuclear weaponry? ... In such a situation, the only thing likely to ensure our survival may be a nuclear first strike of our own. Needless to say, this would be an unthinkable crime --- as it would kill tens of millions of innocent civilians in a single day --- but it may be the only course of action available to us, given what Islamists believe." Wonderful: he wants us to drop a nuclear bomb on an Islamic country we are not at war with if we think it will save American lives. (Korea's nuclear weapons do not, apparently, pose the same kind of threat. Because Koreans are not Muslims?)

Pages 192-199 are a defense of torture in which, among other things, he states that "there is no ethical difference to be found in how the suffering of the tortured or the collaterally damaged appears." "... if we are unwilling to torture, we should be unwilling to wage modern war." And "Make these confessions as unreliable as you like --- the chance that our interests will be advanced in any instance of torture need only equal the chance of such occasioned by the dropping of a single bomb." So if there is a .5% chance that a terrorist will drop a bomb and a .5% chance that torturing a person will elicit that information, we are justified in torturing? "If there is even one chance in a million that he will tell us something under torture that will lead to the further dismantling of Al Qaeda, it seems that we should use every means at our disposal to get him talking."

These are the assertions of an atheist. If he is representative of all atheists, then the world certainly has as much to fear from atheists as from religious fanatics.

Focus of Book
Although the book's title contains the word "faith", it is directed predominantly at the "people of the Book": Jews, Christians, and Muslims (with most of the emphasis on the latter). By so limiting his arguments, he fails to address seriously, if at all, many important issues:

1. Is there something about the nature of religious violence that makes it worse than non-religious violence? This could be framed concretely thus: Were the Inquisitions or the European wars of religion worse than the atrocities of Hitler, Stalin, and Pol Pat? (Harris rather flippantly avoids dealing with this issue by redefining Nazism and Communism as religions in everything but name.) Is it easier to manipulate people through calls to faith than through calls to family, tribe, ethnicity, language, or nationality? Do some religions lend themselves more easily to such manipulation than others? If so, what are the characteristics that matter?

2. Why do people believe? Not so long ago, the answer was rather simple: religion explained things that primitive (broadly defined) human beings did not understand: day and night, seasons, storms, droughts, etc. But today we know more about the universe than we have ever known; we know more about the development of life, the nature of our bodies than ever before. And every day we learn more. In short, science explains much (most?) of what various religions used to explain. Yet people still believe (and not just in the major religions but in astrology, tarot, black magic, etc.) It is not sufficient to declare that such faith is illogical. It is important to understand why, illogical as faith may be, billions of people do believe. On pages 37-39, Harris posits that it is the fear of death that is the source of religious faith. It is a not uncompelling argument, although Buddhists study to escape the cycle of unending rebirths, and I have read that it was Christianity's vision of a life after death that made it such an attractive alternative both to Judaism and non-deist religions. But, if faith helps people deal with the fact that one day they will die, what is the harm?

3. I know how Christian fundamentalists respond to such scientific findings as the age of the universe, but what about adherents to faiths not based on the Bible? Hindu cosmology describes a universe trillions of years older than ours really is, a universe that goes through ever larger cycles until it starts over.* So, how do "fundamentalist" Hindus respond to a science that says the universe is younger and is expanding forever? Do animists even care? In short, where are the fault lines between science and faith? If they are fewer, or nonexistent, in some faiths than in others, why?

4. I have studied many world religions, although not in great depth, but I think only those based on the Bible or Koran have adherents who believe that their religious texts were "written" (as it were) by a Supreme Being. The Analects of Confucius certainly were not. Nor, I think, are the basic texts of Theravada Buddhism so identified. Is the problem of a belief in an inerrant text limited to faiths based on the Bible and Koran?

5. Is religion enjoying a worldwide surge today and, if so, why? Or have believers simply become more vocal? Or are we seeing mainly a realignment: animists turning to Christianity, Catholics converting to Evangelical faiths, etc.?

Harris barely touches most of the above. He asks (p. 44) what sort of ideology would make one most capable of brutality and concludes that it is religion. But his arguments are all based on the Bible and the Koran and ignore all the other sources of violence. He may be right, that religion is the most dangerous ideology, but if he can't convince me (and I am willing to be convinced), he is unlikely to convince others. On page 13, he asserts that "intolerance is intrinsic to every creed". He simply ignores the fact that billions of people who believe widely different things have managed, at least on and off, to live at peace with their neighbors. Then there are the Latin American Catholics who also believe in astrology and tarot and black magic; the Chinese who were often adherents of Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism at the same time; Japanese Buddhists who worship their ancestors in accordance with ancient Shinto rites. Hinduism is, perhaps, the most inclusive of all world religions, incorporating the symbols and stories of every faith it came in touch with until and excluding Islam. In short, not only have adherents of different faiths lived peacefully side by side but individuals can adhere to multiple creeds at the same time. This may be illogical, but it is nevertheless true. It is quite possible that the history of the world would have been much less bloody had religion never existed, but Harris doesn't even come close to proving such an assertion.

On page 53, Harris states that "Certain beliefs place their adherents beyond the reach of every peaceful means of persuasion". True, but people may believe that blacks are inferior to whites, women are inferior to men, the English are inferior to the French, or, (a truly trivial example from a recent email I received) that it is a "myth that 'all caps' in online discussions is equivalent to shouting because shouting applies to hearing". In short, religion has no monopoly on people who believe firmly any number of things that may bear little or no relation to reality. Our ability to deceive ourselves appears to be pretty much unlimited.

The Attack on Islam
On page 33, Harris says "insert these peculiar beliefs, and one can only marvel that suicide bombing is not more widespread ." Hmmm, let's see. There are approximately 1.3 billion Muslims on the planet. (*) How many suicide bombers have there been? 500? 1000? 10,000? Let's say 10,000. That's 10,000/1,300,000,000 - a number so small, my calculator can't even handle it. A logical person, one not suffering from 9/11 PTSD, might argue that the vision of Paradise which Harris thinks is so compelling really isn't, or its attractiveness is mediated by other factors.

In Chapter 4, he asserts that "the problem with Islam" is that it is a "fringe without a center". He admits that "Christianity and Judaism can be made to sound the same, intolerant note --- but it has been a few centuries since either has done so." I think there are a few European Catholics and Protestants, to say nothing of Jews, who would be surprised to hear that.

On page 114, he dismisses the observation that Jews lived, relatively unmolested, for many centuries under Muslim rule when compared to Christianity by listing all the Muslim pogroms against Jews from 1700 to 1947. Great. Now we are comparing the relative humanity of two faiths on the basis of which has killed the most Jews? (I have often thought that the greatest tragedy that has befallen the Jews was not the destruction of the Temple or the Diaspora but the fact that Jesus and Mohammed were unable to create brand new, totally distinct religions that had absolutely nothing to do with Judaism or the Jewish Biblical stories.)

On pages 117-124, he lists a series of phrases from the Koran demonstrating its inherent intolerance. He admits that the Bible also contains some intolerant statements but concludes, with no evidence, that the Bible has countervailing statements which the Koran does not. Now, I have not studied either the Koran or the Bible in that kind of detail, but I find the argument highly suspicious. How does one weigh the intolerance of a religious text? By the number of "intolerant" statements? The percentage of violent passages to peaceful or loving passages? The actions of its most violent followers?

On pages 124-126, he discusses a Pew Research Center survey of Muslims asking if suicide bombing in defense of Islam is ever justified. Of 12 countries he lists, in two (Lebanon and Ivory Coast) more than 50% agree that it is. The percentages in the remaining 10 range from 13% to 47%. Harris sites these results as proof that Islam is inherently dangerous. I, on the other hand, given the current state of the world, was rather encouraged. Harris, anticipating that response, jiggers the numbers by including all but the "never justified" responses. The rankings, of course, change. Now, in six of the countries, more than 50% approve of suicide bombing in some circumstances. He says "These are hideous numbers. If all Muslims had responded as Turkey did (where a mere 4 percent think suicide bombings are 'often justified', 9 percent 'sometimes', and 7 percent 'rarely'), we would still have a problem worth worrying about;" Isn't it possible that those results are at least as dependent on modern events and political figures as on anything inherent in Islam? What would have been the results had the survey been conducted 100 years ago?

I found a Pew Research survey, conducted Oct. 2005, on the attitudes toward torture by Americans broken down by faith. []
63% of the general public (72% of Catholics, 65% of White Protestants, 45% of Secularists) approved of torture at least sometimes [I did the same jiggering that Harris did]. I find these numbers as frightening as Harris found his suicide bombing numbers. But what does this tell us? That Americans are awful people? That Catholics are more bloodthirsty than Secularists? Or that it is easy to get people who are afraid or feel vulnerable to support acts they would not otherwise have ever considered?

And I wonder what surveys in various countries over various periods would have shown for support for slavery, for anti-Semitism, for discrimination on the basis of sex, language or ethnicity, etc. This is not to say that the suicide bombing numbers are not disturbing. But they do not, to me, prove that Islam is inherently evil.

Concluding (somewhat rambling) Thoughts
Suicide bombing is a relatively new phenomenon. We find it especially abhorrent, I think, because of the Judaeo-Christian attitude toward suicide as well as the fact that the bombing is aimed at innocent civilians. But human history is unfortunately replete with the murder of innocent civilians. I doubt seriously whether the dead cared if they were killed by clubs, knives, arrows, machetes, guns, smallpox-infected blankets, bombs in a city square or bombs dropped from the sky. Does it matter if these civilians were killed because they were Protestants in a Catholic country or Catholics in a Protestant country, Basque speakers in a Spanish land, natives in the path of somebody else's Manifest Destiny, Tutus or Hutsis, or just road kill in the way of marauding armies? Warfare has never been limited to battles between competing professional armies.

During the past 2,000 years of world history, how many people have died at the hands of Christians vs. how many at the hands of Muslims? If it turned out that Christians had killed more people than Muslims, for religious reasons, would it prove that Christianity is inherently evil? How many people have died in wars that had no religious motivation? Was the slaughterhouse of World War I the result of religious differences? If one is going to make the argument that religion is the most dangerous force on the planet and that, of all religions, Islam is the most dangerous, one needs a lot more proof than what Harris offers in this book.

Milosevic was able to use religion to generate a genocide in the Balkans, among people who had lived side by side in peace for decades. Many of the people he roused had lived through the WWII Holocaust and so, one would have thought, would have been aware of the dangers of a genocidal appeal. But Milosevic was still able to make them see their neighbors as enemies.

For decades in this country, the phrase "Happy Holidays" has been an alternative to "Merry Christmas" and "Happy New Year". But two years ago, O'Reilly decided it was a sign of disrespect, an attack on Christmas by non-Christians (read "Jews"). All of a sudden, thousands of people who had probably never thought twice about it, started writing letters to major department stores, TV networks, magazines and newspapers complaining about the lack of respect for their religion. I wonder, not without some degree of fear, what the response would have been had O'Reilly demanded that department stores remove Channukah cards from their displays. Think about it. 90% of the people in America are Christian, but a few demagogues have made them believe that their religion is under attack. Why, therefore, should we be surprised if men like Bin Laden have decided to use the Koran to wage a war on the West or that they have been successful in winning adherents by doing so?

It seems to me that human beings have been designed to respond with violence to many types of appeal (think about simple mob violence). Are some religious beliefs especially amenable to manipulation by people with a thirst for power? I don't know, but Harris's book does not prove his case.

**I was more than a little surprised by the number of "secular/nonreligious/agnostic/atheist": 1.1 billion. Does Harris realize how much company he has?

*from the Wikipedia:
"The later puranic view asserts that the universe is created, destroyed, and re-created in an eternally repetitive series of cycles. In Hindu cosmology, a universe endures for about 4,320,000,000 years (one day of Brahma, the creator or kalpa) and is then destroyed by fire or water elements. At this point, Brahma rests for one night, just as long as the day. This process, named pralaya (Cataclysm), repeats for 100 Brahma years (311 trillion human years) that represents Brahma's life span. It must be noted that Brahma is the creator but not necessarily regarded as God in Hinduism. He is mostly regarded as a creation of God / Brahman."