The End of Faith The End of Faith
Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason

Sam Harris
ISBN 0743268091 (9780743268097)
The Free Press (Simon & Schuster), 2006

Category: Ethics & Morality

Atheists Win Prizes. Sam Harris' The End of Faith — winner of the 2005 PEN award for non-fiction — urges us to drop our faith — with its lack of appeal to intellectual reason, and its inherent promise to continue producing fanatics if we are to keep pushing our Holy Books' messages to their logical conclusions — in favour of more reasonable choices.

Whilst Harris' language and tone isn't as high-and-lofty, his message is essentially a 21st Century update of Nietzsche's: whilst God is not 'dead' in our consciousness, perhaps he should be, if we are to get out of this world's mess alive, 'because our neighbours are now armed with chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons' (p.14).

The book begins with a suicide bomber strapped and ready to destroy himself and the passengers of a bus in the name of God. We can tell nothing about him except for one thing: our common-sense will instantly recognise him as a Muslim. 'OK,' I thought, 'so what?' Harris' choice to begin with a suicide bomber felt obvious, contrived. A book which calls for the end of all faith is, at least at this stage, nothing more than a call to end fundamentalism. I'm on the same page, but this argument didn't make me sit up and listen. Harris plays the fundamentalist Islam card too easily.

Trouble is — and this gets more interesting — our problem doesn't begin with fundamentalism. In chapter four, Harris comments that orthodox Islam — because of the divine nature of its text — simply does not allow for any analysis of the Qur'an. Even the moderate Muslim who is opposed to literal interpretations of certain problematic verses has to admit that they're in there. Even liberals or moderates from the major religions — all talk of tolerance and dialogue — cannot be aloof to their religions' inherent claims for 'truth'. After faith's long-burning fuse of dialogue, tolerance and 'love' has reached the end of its rope, history has proven that eventually, we'll just fight about it.

In his discussion, Harris turns to, among others, the conflicts of the Middle East and Israel/Palestine, and the work of the 'Tamil Tigers'. Recognising that it could be argued that agendas here are political and not religious, he warns us against thinking of the Tigers as 'secular': 'The cult of martyr worship that (Hindus) have nurtured for decades has many features of the religiosity that one would expect in people who give their lives so easily for a cause' (p.229). Indeed, Saddam Hussein's mission began as self-consciously political, until he ended up all-too-conveniently tacking Islam on the end of it.

'OK. But,' I thought. Religious belief is by no means the only cause of today's ills. Harris' call to eradicate faith seems akin to the idea that exterminating the entire world's snakes will tame all the world's poisons. What about 'Satanism'? Sure, it takes its name from God's arch enemy. But it is philosophical, humanist, not religious. If no-one had penned Genesis, I'm sure Satanism's originators could have found another name for it. I'm a little surprised/cynical that Harris, himself a philosopher, let this philosophy (and many others like it, which capitalise on humanity's inherent selfishness, re: Nietzsche) slip through the critical net.

'Faith' doesn't contain the potential for hatred. Unthinking, gung-ho religion can. Humanity's obsession with conquest has landed us in the trouble we're in. Faith should fly in the face of that, and I'm with Harris in mourning the fact that it hasn't. (If Harris' book has pushed any significant thought-buttons in me, it's to think again about the conflicts of the Old Testament, and the question of why even Yahweh seemed to support them.)

Those who question whether 'organised religion' is a helpful concept will, at many points, hold their hands up to this book's message (for me, the terms 'faith' and 'religion' aren't necessarily interchangeable. Harris might have further convinced me had he used the latter). For everyone else, it won't rock your boat too much: Holy Books aside, it's impossible to disprove the Truth; however, faith should be a reminder to all that a relationship with the Prince of Peace is fraught with implications.

(This review is based on the hardback edition, 0743268083, 2005)

Author's Website,

Mark Burnhope, March 2006

Mark Burnhope is a graduate of London School of Theology. He is a 'trying' novelist and poet with a Masters Degree in Creative and Transactional Writing from Brunel University, and an alternative worship/emerging church obsessive.

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