Review: The End of Faith

“How can we encourage other human beings to extend their moral
sympathies beyond a narrow locus? How can we learn to become mere human
beings, shorn of any more compelling national, ethnic, or religious
identity? We can be reasonable. It is in the very nature of reason to
fuse cognitive and moral horizons. Reason is nothing less than the
guardian of love.”

….

“We do not know what awaits each of us after death, but we know that we
will die. Clearly, it must be possible to live ethically–with a
genuine concern for the happiness of other sentient beings–without
presuming to know things about which we are patently ignorant. Consider
it: every person you have ever met, every person you will pass in the
street today, is going to die. Living long enough, each will suffer the
loss of his friends and family. All are going to lose everything they
love in this world. Why would one want to be anything but kind to them
in the meantime?”


– Sam Harris, The End of Faith

I finally finished reading The End of Faith by Sam Harris.
It took me more than a week to finish this book because I only have
time to do my reading at night before I sleep. That’s bad, because I
tend to sleep after 20 pages or so. This book had been my sleeping pill
for the past week.

I’m not saying that the book is boring. Far
from it! In fact, I’m glad that I took the time reading it because I
now have a deeper understanding of where Sam Harris is coming from. If
you think this book is only about the boring and tired science vs.
God/religion debate, then you probably have a shallow reading of it or
that you’re too defensive of your own beliefs, religious or otherwise.
If you think Sam Harris is an ultra-rationalist who reduces
consciousness and spirituality to its neurological correlates, or that
Harris is evangelizing his own flavor of Buddhist spirituality then you
probably didn’t take the time to digest the End Notes. Speaking of End
Notes, a whopping one fourth of the book consists of end notes
and bibliography. A patient reading of the end notes would reveal that
Sam Harris is a broadly-read philosopher, a non-conventional scientist
when it comes to the ultimate mystery of consciousness, and, for lack
of a better secular description, a hard core non-dualist mystic in the
Buddhist (specifically Dzogchen) tradition. Here’s what he has to say about Buddhism, on Notes to Page 215 (end note 12):

“Attentive
readers will have noticed that I have been very hard on religions of
faith–Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and even Hinduism–and have not
said much that is derogatory of Buddhism. This is not an accident.
While Buddhism has also been a source of ignorance and occasional
violence, it is not a religion of faith, or a religion at all, in the
Western sense. There are millions of Buddhists who do not seem to know
this, and they can be found in temples throughout Southeast Asia, and
even the West praying to Buddha as though he were a numinous
incarnation of Santa Claus. This distortion of the tradition
notwithstanding, it remains true that the esoteric teachings of
Buddhism offer the most complete methodology we have for discovering
the intrinsic freedom of consciousness, unencumbered by any dogma. It
is no exaggeration to say that meetings between the Dalai Lama and
Christian ecclesiastics to mutually honor their religious traditions
are like meetings between physicists from Cambridge and the Bushmen of
Kalahari to mutually honor their respective understandings of the
physical universe. This is not to say that Tibetan Buddhists are not
saddled with certain dogmas (so are physicists) or that the Bushmen
could not have formed some conception of the atom. Any person familiar
with both literatures will know that the Bible does not contain a
discernible fraction of the precises spiritual instructions that can be
found in the Buddhist canon. Though there is much in Buddhism that I do
not pretend to understand–as well as much that seems deeply
implausible–it would be intellectually dishonest not to acknowledge
its preeminence as a system of spiritual instructions.”

Word. Sam Harris is no ordinary atheist. He’s a Buddhist Geek ;) Anyway….

A
lot has been said already about the God/religion vs. science
perspective that this book had covered. In fact, during the first year
of its publication, Sam Harris had taken heat from different
camps–religious camps for his “angry” and non-compromising critique on
religion (particularly the Abrahamic religions);
liberal camps for his critique on postmodernism and moral relativism;
atheist camps for his championing of Buddhist practice and his
non-conventional scientific views on consciousness. Harris had
addressed most of these criticisms in the Afterword section of the paperback edition of the book. If you’re interested in other critical reviews of the book, you can start with the The End of Faith entry on Wikipedia and the customer reviews on Amazon.

My
main criticism with this book is that, although Sam Harris had
acknowledged the stages of moral development of culture and society
(for example, he compared the violence and non-tolerance in
contemporary Islam to fourteenth century Christianity), he didn’t
expound on the moral and psychological development of individuals (i.e.
stages of faith) which could’ve shed more light and supported his
argument that blind mythic faith belongs to a lower rung of
psychological development than reason. I’ve pointed this out in my review of his book, Letter to a Christian Nation. So I won’t repeat it here.

I’m
not suggesting that Sam Harris is ignorant of the moral stages of
development and even multiple intelligences in people. Far from it.
Harris is a wide and deep reader. So I suspect that he has a solid
grasp of those ideas as well. In fact, I was a bit surprised that he’s
also familiar with integral theory/philosophy. He even cited Ken Wilber’s pre/trans fallacy in the End Notes. (Yep, Wilber’s Sex, Ecology & Spirituality
is included in the bibliography along with other mainstream and
academically recognized philosophers.) In some sections of the book, I
can sense Wilber’s influence on Harris (or at least the similarity in
their views) especially when it comes to his critiques of
postmodernism, New Age and his championing of nondual spirituality.

Speaking of Wilber, I wonder if Harris had read Wilber’s Marriage of Sense and Soul. I find it interesting that it’s not included in his recommended reading list
since I see a lot of similarities in their views. So I’d like to hear
his take on it. For example: How would he classify Wilber’s approach at
integrating science and religion? Would he agree with it? Would he
object to it? Would he embrace Wilber’s view on integrating
spirituality and science yet maintain his non-compromising stance on
religion? I can only wonder at this time. But the main difference I see
between Wilber and Harris is that, while Wilber’s Integral Spirituality
uses a conveyor belt metaphor when dealing with religion, Sam Harris wants to teleport
everyone (or at least the key people–leaders–in society) to a
rational view of reality. A dialogue (or even a debate) between those
two thinkers would shed light on their similarities, as well as their
differences.

But in the meantime, take for example, Wilber’s approach. In his Liberalism and Religion – We Should Talk article, Wilber wrote:

“The
way it is now, the modern world really is divided into two major and
warring camps, science and liberalism on the one hand, and religion and
conservatism on the other. And the key to getting these two camps
together is first, to get religion past science, and then second, to
get religion past liberalism, because both science and liberalism are
deeply anti-spiritual. And it must occur in that order, because
liberalism won’t even listen to spirituality unless it has first passed
the scientific test.”

In contrast, instead of getting
religion past science, then getting religion past liberalism, so that
he can integrate authentic spirituality with science, as Wilber
suggested, Harris had declared war on religion, spit on the moral relativism of postmodern liberalism (e.g. he made a case against the war on illegal drugs, a philosophical defense of torture, and a pot shot at pacifism), and happily took a stab at integrating spirituality and ethics with science,
all in one book. Very ballsy. As a result, Harris had put himself smack
in the middle of those warring camps (science and liberalism; religion
and conservatism). No wonder he’s getting heat from all sides,
including from his fellow atheists. Take this excerpt from the
Afterword:

“I have also taken considerable heat from atheists
for a few remarks I made about the nature of consciousness. Most
atheists appear to be certain that consciousness is entirely dependent
on (and reducible to) the workings of the brain…. The fact is that
scientists still do not know what the relationship between
consciousness and matter actually is. I am not suggesting that we make
a religion out of this uncertainty, or do anything else with it. And,
needless to say, the mysteriousness of consciousness does nothing to
make conventional religious notions about God and paradise any more
plausible.”

And this speech by Sam Harris at the Atheist Alliance Conference:

“While
it is an honor to find myself continually assailed with Dan [Dennett],
Richard [Dawkins], and Christopher [Hitchens] as though we were a
single person with four heads, this whole notion of the “new atheists”
or “militant atheists” has been used to keep our criticism of religion
at arm’s length, and has allowed people to dismiss our arguments
without meeting the burden of actually answering them. And while our
books have gotten a fair amount of notice, I think this whole
conversation about the conflict between faith and reason, and religion
and science, has been, and will continue to be, successfully
marginalized under the banner of atheism.

“So,
let me make my somewhat seditious proposal explicit: We should not call
ourselves “atheists.” We should not call ourselves “secularists.” We
should not call ourselves “humanists,” or “secular humanists,” or
“naturalists,” or “skeptics,” or “anti-theists,” or “rationalists,” or
“freethinkers,” or “brights.” We should not call ourselves anything. We
should go under the radar—for the rest of our lives. And while there,
we should be decent, responsible people who destroy bad ideas wherever
we find them.”

(see also Rational Mysticism wherein Sam Harris responded Tom Flynn, editor of Free Inquiry magazine, and Response to My Fellow ‘Atheists’, Sam Harris’s response to prominent Atheists who criticized his speech).

Whether
Harris infuriated those different camps on purpose–knowingly playing
the role of a martyr or a sacrificial lamb (religious pun intended)–or
out of machismo and naive foolishness, only Harris can say. But I
imagine Wilber snickering in the background whispering, “I told you so.”

Most
readers of this blog are probably already bored and tired of the whole
God/religion vs. science debate. Me too. So to save space and time and
spare you of boredom, I resisted the urge of going there, at least in
this post. Instead, I’ll just focus on Harris’s attempt at integrating
science, spirituality and ethics. And I quote from the book:

“Mysticism is
a rational enterprise. Religion is not. The mystic has recognized
something about the nature of consciousness prior to thought, and this
recognition is susceptible to rational discussion. The mystic has
reasons for what he believes, and these reasons are empirical. The
roiling mystery of the world can be analyzed with concepts (this is
science), or it can be experienced free of concepts (this is myticism).
Religion is nothing more than bad concepts held in place of good ones
for all time. It is the denial–at once full of hope and full of
fear–of the vastitude of human ignorance.

“A kernel of truth
lurks at the heart of religion, because spiritual experience, ethical
behavior, and strong communities are essential for human happiness. And
yet our religious traditions are intellectually defunct and politically
ruinous. While spiritual experience is clearly a natural propensity for
the human mind, we need not believe anything on insufficient evidence
to actualize it. Clearly, it must be possible to bring reason,
spirituality, and ethics together in our thinking about the world. This
would be the beginning of a rational approach to our deepest personal
concerns. It would also be the end of faith.”

It’s clear that Harris is attempting integration here. The End of Faith
is all about the jettisoning of blind religious faith, which is “the
belief in historical and metaphysical propositions without sufficient
evidence,” so that integration of science and spirituality and ethics
can begin at the level playing field of reason.

Before I
conclude, allow me to speculate on why Harris had chosen to take a hard
swing at religion instead of going along the safe and
politically-correct route. After all, who in their right minds would
willingly anger religious fundamentalists, religious moderates,
conservatives, liberals, moral relativists, scientists, and fellow
atheists, all at the same time? Sam Harris strikes me as a very
intelligent, reasonable, tolerant, spiritual, and sensitive guy. You
can sense this by his tone and his demeanor on debates and lectures.
So why did he write the book in a polemical and ultra-critical tone?
Being a Dzogchen practitioner, he should be familiar with the concept
of “skillful means” and “the middle way“, right? So how come his approach is more combative than embracing? Isn’t that so non-Buddhist of him?

By
his own account, Harris wrote the book immediately after the September
11 attacks, so it’s logical to assume that the book was tainted by is
own personal anger at religion (especially at Islam). However, it’s
just hard for me to imagine Sam Harris gritting his teeth while writing
pages after pages of End Notes and including a vast literature on
philosophy, religion, science and mystical spirituality in the
bibliography section at the same time. If Harris truly practices what
he preaches (e.g. nondual meditation), then I think it’s more logical
to speculate that Harris had consciously channeled his passion in service of non-idiot compassion.
Only time will tell if his efforts would put a dent on the current
religious atmosphere in the U.S. and the rest of the world. I wish him
well. I’ll be following him deep down the rabbit hole he’s digging…

But regardless of the controversy and the non-compromising position of Harris when it comes to religion, The End of Faith
is an important contemporary book. This book is not about Atheism. It’s
a book about exercising one’s faculty of critical thinking on religion,
science and ethics. It’s a rude and crude initial attempt at
integrating science and authentic spirituality. Read it. Critique it.
Discuss it with your friends. Discuss it in your schools and universities.
Discuss it in your congregation. Discuss it with your priests and
pastors. Use it as a tool to separate the wheat of reason from the chaff of mythic hubris and the flatland of postmodernism. Godspeed ;)

In the meantime, I leave you with a video of Sam Harris’s heretic lecture at Idea City.

P.S. Up next on the Gospel of the New Atheists: The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. I have a feeling that this book will have a totally different flavor than The End of Faith. Which of the two has more depth? I’ll let you know what I think soon as I finish reading the book.

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Comments (5)

  1. Vince wrote::

    Great review dawg!

    Tuesday, October 9, 2007 at 9:12 am #
  2. Hokai wrote::

    ~C4, thank you for an excellent review of “The End of Faith”. I agree with many things you said here. Though I probably find much less agreement with Harris’ approach in details than you do, I don’t think his combativeness is “non-Buddhist” at all. Sharp criticism of everything that causes unnecessary suffering and perpetuates illusion is very Buddhist, and very reasonable in the ethical sense.

    Godspeed,

    Hokai

    Tuesday, October 9, 2007 at 11:03 am #
  3. md wrote::

    Oh, come on, Rommel. You praise someone who writes this idiotic drivel?

    “It is no exaggeration to say that meetings between the Dalai Lama and Christian ecclesiastics to mutually honor their religious traditions are like meetings between physicists from Cambridge and the Bushmen of Kalahari to mutually honor their respective understandings of the physical universe.”

    Of course it is an exaggeration, and one that only someone with the most bent, wack, caricatured version of Christianity possible. For shame that you praise this person’s work. For shame.

    Tuesday, October 9, 2007 at 8:38 pm #
  4. John wrote::

    This reference sums up where Harris is at. Harris being one of the new self appointed left-brained “authorities” on religion.

    http://www.firmstand.org/articles/beware_of_those_who_do_not_practice_religion.htm

    Tuesday, October 9, 2007 at 9:54 pm #
  5. ~C4Chaos wrote::

    md said: “For shame that you praise this person’s work. For shame.”

    for shame that you judge Harris with that one quotation alone. for shame that you judge Harris while not having read his book (i assume you haven’t read his book, yet because you didn’t mention that you have read his book) to see where he’s coming from. for shame that you come to such conclusions. read his book. then let’s discuss the ideas.

    ~C

    Sunday, October 28, 2007 at 4:43 pm #