Wednesday, July 13, 2005

the end of faith?

This Monday a Canadian radio network talk show, Adler Online, featured an interview with author Sam Harris (The End of Faith). I’m sure he was dug out of the woodwork as someone who had a meaningful contribution in response to the London bombings.

I was transfixed as Harris gave his analysis of and solution to the terrorism post-9/11. It’s all the fault of religion, he said. Not only Islam, but any religion that is a closed system and purports to give answers, including Christianity and Judaism.

He advocates a type of intolerance. For starters, people who are religious believers should not be allowed to hold public office. They should be intentionally excluded from public debate. After all, what relevant contribution would people who hold to the teachings of a first century book have to decisions about 21st century technology-driven problems – such as stem cell research? Therefore, according to Harris, society with its own interest at heart is justified in marginalizing people of faith – whatever their faith may be.

I checked out Sam Harris’s web site and read the reviews of his book posted there. It appears that, predictably, The End of Faith came out to a smattering of applause when it was released in August 2004.

The End of Faith articulates the dangers and absurdities of organized religion so fiercely and so fearlessly that I felt relieved as I read it, vindicated and almost personally understood" - Natalie Angier, New York Times Book Review Column, September 4, 2004.

Sam Harris is tired of being nice to religious people. Why, he wonders, should we be expected to respect individuals who in the year 2004 still believe in virgin birth? And Christians rarely return the favor. Instead they’re down in Washington holding prayer breakfasts and smiting "sinners" through mandatory drug sentences, intrusive sex laws and prohibitions against stem cell research." - Daniel Blue, The San Francisco Chronicle - August 15, 2004.

This book will strike a chord with anyone who has ever pondered the irrationality of religions faith..." begins a book review from The Economist.

It appears Harris has as little time for religious moderation and tolerance as outright belief. The Economist review continues:

Many people would think that (religious moderation) a good thing, since moderation implies tolerance and respect for other faiths. Mr. Harris disagrees: tolerance on the part of moderates is precisely the attitude that allows extremists to flourish. "By failing to live by the letter of the texts, while tolerating the irrationality of those who do," he says, "religious moderates betray faith and reason equally." And therefore, goes the argument, they connive in all the horrors carried out in the name of their imagined creator. Only when we renounce the impossible paraphernalia of religion – for example the virgin birth (attested to by only two of the apostles) or the ascension of Muhammad to heaven – will reason be free to rescue mankind from religious terrorism that tries to send all non-believers to hell and only the faithful to heaven."
Sam Harris quoted on religious moderation: "Religious moderation is a product of secular knowledge and scriptural ignorance."

Mr. Harris, however, has a few chinks in his own armor. In the Adler interview, for example, he acknowledged his own brand of faith when he granted that paranormal and psychic phenomenon were valid and valuable at least insofar as they could be shown (by reason I suppose – though how one would do that I’m not sure) to be real and to fill a spiritual hunger. And in a book review by avowed atheist Johann Hari (February 11, 2005, The Independent U.K.), comes an interesting observation about Harris’s own admissions in the book:

And then the book takes another strange turn. Having savaged the idea of religion for over a hundred pages, Harris suddenly announces that he wants to craft an atheist brand of "spirituality." He praises "the great philosopher mystics of the East" including Buddha – and says that "spiritual experience is clearly a natural propensity of the human mind." At this point – as somebody who feels no hunger for a ‘spiritual’ dimension in my life at all – I began to choke. Didn’t Buddha peddle notions just as absurd as the Christianity Harris has mocked? Didn’t he say that we lived before as insects, and may live again as goats? Where is Harris’ tide of scorn now?
Whew! Now I feel better. It seems even this atheist Goliath isn't invincible

However, hearing this man interviewed and snooping around on his web site has alerted me to the rising tide of vitriol toward people of faith (not that I needed much alerting – I come from secular Canada, after all, where the biggest gaffe you can make as a politician is to admit you have a faith, especially a Christian faith, and be seen to take it seriously). And so I ask myself – is my life lived with the kind of radicalism that would justify this response? I hope so!

Sam Harris interviewed by


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