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

Michael Jensen

It is not at all surprising that, following September 11, 2001, the value of religion to human civilization has been scrutinized. If religious ideology created the framework by which these men justified the suicidal megadeath they perpetrated on that day, then surely the human community would be better off without religion altogether. Nobel-prize winning physicist Steven Weinberg put it this way:

"With or without religion, you would have good people going good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion."

Can we not say, in this age of technology and science, that religion is an adolescent phase of human experience out of which some of us have yet to grow? The religions offer humanity no accessible common ground on which peaceably to agree.

This is not a new or original suggestion. Variations of it have been put since the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century. The suggested unifier was to be Reason; religious faith " Reason's opposite " was to be relegated to the realm of the private, where it could be kept safely out of harm's way. It was the preference of some, like philosopher Bertrand Russell, that religion be banished altogether. Imagine: no religion. It's easy if you try"

The End of Faith by Sam Harris is a book written in the atheist tradition of Bertrand Russell. It is proof that a self-indulgent and stupid book can be written by a clever man. Harris' argument is that religion is deeply irrational and that it is responsible for the age of terror in which we live. It is no good you suburban moderate Christians arguing that you are different from the suicide bomber: Harris won't have any truck with that. The religious spirit in human culture is dangerous, whatever form it takes.

Harris, completing a doctorate in neuroscience, has some interesting things to say about the practice of meditation and the human brain. However this is buried in his last chapters. His opening salvos against the major religions are delivered with an undergrad smugness and with the arrogance of a man who rarely meets someone who he thinks is cleverer than he. This tone betrays the relentlessly polemical nature of the book. 

However, his attempt to deconstruct the Bible is laughable. He uses the tactic of pulling an apparently barbaric verse out of Deuteronomy and saying "there you go " what a silly book the Bible is". This is typical atheist baloney: read the Bible in a more literalistic and wilfully daft way than any fundamentalist would and on that basis dismiss it. His list of apparent contradictions and incoherencies in the Bible is copied from atheist Aaron Burr's list compiled in 1860! This list is easily answered by anyone with a skerrick of biblical knowledge. A number of verses that he gives as glaring errors were in fact (when I consulted the Bible) mistakes on HIS part " sloppy quotations or plainly wrong citations (n.31 p.246). For example, he cites Matthew 2:3-5 as a quotation of Micah 5:2. This may seem minor, but it is one of several such errors and one can't help drawing the conclusion that Harris hasn't carefully read the Bible at all. For all the rhetoric and self-righteous indignation, a close examination of Harris' research reveals how thin it is. This is a merely piece of tawdry prejudice based on hearsay and second-hand scholarship of the kind Harris himself decries " the sort familiar to Australians from that which Philip Adams dishes out in his weekly column.

Harris trots out the mouldy old arguments about religious violence, witch burnings and the treatment of heretics, but with precious little historical research to support his case. Harris even tries to blame the evils of the openly atheistic and anti-Christian regimes of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia on Christianity. This is a laughable thesis. "Surely there must come a time when we will acknowledge the obvious: theology is now little more than a branch of human ignorance. Indeed, it is ignorance with wings" (p.173). Harris' book demonstrates only that atheism like his is wilfully ignorant. Alister McGrath's magisterial The Twilight of Atheism is an effective reply to this deliberate blindness and would be a book I would recommend to any Christian whose friend or relative is seduced by Harris' smart-alecky patter.