I was at the bookstore today and left with a couple things--more than I had any business buying, but still only about 1/4 of what I originally had in hand to buy. I have the bad habit of buying books at about twice the rate I read them, and the problem is even worse since The Blog. I wonder at times about the merits of spending more time living and less time writing about it. The blog (often about blogging) as a kind of life by proxy.
Anyway, I've started reading the first, Sam Harris's "The End of Faith." A friend of mine steered me toward an editorial Harris wrote a few months ago at The Huffington Post dealing with the same subject, and I'd forgotten that I intended to buy this book, and in fact that I had already posted about Mr. Harris. It was a nice little reminder to see it on the shelf.
His premise is that religions worldwide (and certainly the concept of faith in the U.S.) have somehow maneuvered themselves into a protective bubble wherein critical scrutiny is almost universally declared off limits, and that without this scrutiny we are headed, because of the increasing availability of weapons of mass destruction, for nothing less than the doom of civilization. And he supports this premise so effectively and effortlessly that the book seems almost like it wrote itself, like it's a revealed truth, something we all know but have somehow managed to ignore. I certainly cannot claim to be anywhere near the writer or thinker he is, nor have I come remotely close to putting these thoughts together in such a coherent way; but so much of what he says has run through my mind for years. A quote on the back cover from Natalie Angier of the NYT Review of Books, says that Harris "...articulates the dangers and absurdities of organized religion so fiercely and so fearlessly that I felt relieved as I read it, vindicated, almost personally understood." I feel as though I could have written that line (and, if the New York Times had paid me to, I might well have).
I tend to read with a pen, and there's hardly a thing in the first chapter I did not underline. The second chapter now deals with basic philosophical questions (he graduated from Stanford with a philosophy degree and is currently pursuing a doctorate in neuroscience) and appears to be laying the groundwork for other fascinating things to come.
Some samples thus far.
Under the heading "The Myth of 'Moderation' in Religion:"
The idea that any one of our religions represents the infallible word of the One True God requires an encyclopedic ignorance of history, mythology, and art even to be entertained--as the beliefs, rituals and iconography of each of our religions attest to centuries of cross-pollination among them. Whatever their imagined source, the doctrines of modern religions are no more tenable than those which, for lack of adherents, were cast upon the scrap heap of mythology millennia ago; for there is no more evidence to justify a belief in the literal existence of Yahweh and Satan than there was to keep Zeus perched upon his mountain throne or Poseidon churning the seas.
According to Gallup, 35 percent of Americans believe that the Bible is the literal and inerrant word of the Creator of the universe. Another 48 percent believe that it is the "inspired" word of the same--still inerrant, though certain of its passages must be interpreted symbolically before their truth can be brought to light. Only 17 percent of us remain to doubt that a personal God, in his infinite wisdom, is likely to have authored this text--or, for that matter, to have created the earth with its 250,000 species of beetles. Some 46 percent of Americans take a literalist view of creation (40 percent believe that God has guided creation over the course of millions of years). This means that 120 million of us place the big bang 2,500 years after the Babylonians and Sumerians learned to brew beer. If our polls are to be trusted, nearly 230 million Americans believe that a book showing neither unity of style nor internal consistency was authored by an omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent deity. A survey of Hindus, Muslims and Jews around the world would surely yield similar results, revealing that we, as a species, have grown almost perfectly intoxicated by our myths. How is it that, in this one area of our lives, we have convinced ourselves that our beliefs about the world can float entirely free of reason and evidence?
Or this, about the dangerously naive but politically correct notion that Islam is a peaceful religion (a subject which, with other faiths, is treated at length):
The problem is not that some Muslims neglect to notice the few references to nonaggression that can be found in the Koran, and that this leads them to do terrible things to innocent unbelievers; the problem is that most Muslims believe that the Koran is the literal word of God. The corrective to the worldview of Osama bin Laden is not to point out the single line in the Koran that condemns suicide, because this ambiguous statement is set in a thicket of other passages that can be read only as a direct summons to war against the "friends of Satan." The appropriate response to the bin Ladens of the world is to correct everyone's reading of these texts by making the same evidentiary demands in religious matters that we make in all others.
About American politics:
As a consequence of our silence on these matters, we live in a country in which a person cannot get elected president if he openly doubts the existence of heaven and hell. This is truly remarkable, given that there is no other body of "knowledge" that we require our political leaders to master. Even a hairstylist must pass a licensing exam before plying his trade in the United States, and yet those given the power to make war and national policy--those whose decisions will inevitably affect human life for generations--are not expected to know anything in particular before setting to work. They do not have to be political scientists, economists, or even lawyers; they need not have studied international relations, military history, resource management, civil engineering, or any other field of knowledge that might be brought to bear in the governance of a modern superpower; they need only be expert fund-raisers, comport themselves well on television, and be indulgent of certain myths. In our next presidential election, an actor who reads his Bible would almost certainly defeat a rocket scientist who does not. Could there be any clearer indication that we are allowing unreason and otherworldliness to govern our affairs?
And I had to underline this one:
The belief that certain books were written by God (who, for reasons difficult to fathom, made Shakespeare a far better writer than himself) leaves us powerless to address the most potent source of human conflict, past and present.
I've run across a few critiques of his work--which is hardly surprising given the figures quoted above--but often the criticisms take the form of blasting his knowledge of details about this or that religion. To my mind this is like listening to an argument about the arcane minutiae of religious doctrine and trying to figure out which proponent is right; in reality, if I reject the foundation which, many stories below, is supposed to underpin their argument, the argument now seems misguided and pointless. And much of the criticism directed at Harris seems of this sort. Discussions about the construction details of Noah's Ark become moot when the whole concept of putting two of everything on a boat is revealed for the adolescent fantasy that it is. This is not to say, of course, that effective criticism of the book is not possible, and I'm eager to read where people think he has wandered astray. So far, I'm not seeing it.
Whether we think him right or wrong, I would deem this book required reading. He demands that we make a plausible defense for our beliefs, something stronger than "just because." He forces us to ask questions that seem not to get asked enough.
We'll see if it finishes with the same bang it started with.
**Mid-Course Update** (4/25/06)
From Chapter 4, "The Problem With Islam:"
People of faith tend to argue that it is not faith itself but man's baser nature that inspires such violence. But I take it to be self-evident that ordinary people cannot be moved to burn genial old scholars alive for blaspheming the Koran, or celebrate the violent deaths of their children, unless they believe some improbable things about the nature of the universe. Because most religions offer no valid mechanism by which their core beliefs can be tested and revised, each new generation of believers is condemned to inherit the superstitions and tribal hatreds of its predecessors. If we would speak of the baseness of our natures, our willingness to live, kill and die on account of propositions for which we have no evidence should be among the first topics of discussion.
On matters of faith I need little convincing from Mr. Harris. And there is little new in his condemnation of dogmatic Christian thinking for me. But his take on Islam is another matter, not least because I knew so little about the faith before I began to read his book. And while I have long condemned the elaborate belief structure not tethered to any evidence or subject to any kind of verification (or even the raising of these questions)--a constant feature of all major faiths, it seems--I was quite in the dark about the center-stage position of violence and death in the correct practice of Islam. His basic thesis, seemingly well-supported, is that the extremity of the Muslim terrorist is not an extremity of method, but of fidelity to their religion.
It is important to specify the dimension in which the Muslim "extremists" are actually extreme. They are extreme in their faith. They are extreme in their devotion to the literal word of the Koran and the hadith, and this leads them to be extreme in the degree to which they believe that modernity and secular culture are incompatible with moral and spiritual health. Muslim extremists are certain that the exports of Western culture are leading their wives and children away from God.
The method--jihad--is much-exhorted and ever-present in the Koran, an inescapable aspect of being a good Muslim (if one takes the faith seriously). Harris makes his strongest case--something I would normally tend to dismiss as hysterical and hyperbolic--about the threat posed by Islam to all non-Muslims, a threat posed not by some quirk of its present-day practice, but by the most basic, and oft-repeated, tenets of the faith. In the end, I have difficulty ignoring his apocalyptic vision (as I am wont to do generally with this kind of hand-wringing). It goes without saying that attacking this extremity of faith with another, "better" untestable faith is ludicrous.
And there are other distressing elements for me in this book. I have often confessed to being liberal on social issues, and while I adhere to no party in politics generally, I am rather anti-conservative in practice. Again (while I do not mean to be coy or disingenuous) I am skeptical of most political zeal from either side. But to a bystander I must appear indistinguishable from a bona fide liberal. In any case, it was with some unease that I read Harris's assessment of the Left's tendency to welcome diversity and accept different views with an open mind as being absolutely wrong-headed concerning Islam. The problem is not starting with an open mind; it is that too many people either don't do the research, or they simply refuse to pass judgment. (And I admit this hardly seems a sensible life's strategy.) He does not do a feeble job of supporting his view (and to which my little summary does no justice), and he cautions openly that his opinion stands 180 degrees from most liberal tendencies and the tenets of political correctness.
I guess this should not be a surprise to me, not least because I'm not a slave to PC generally. But I try to ask questions before I shoot (to use an apt metaphor). A fringe of less-than-sound thinking is readily found on all sides of the political spectrum. And while the chapter in question deals with Islam, there is little in the chapter which he does not apply alike to other faiths. But his main thrust, if I can attempt a condensation, is that the ugly side of Islam is a much more pervasive aspect of the faith than, say, the unfortunate chapters of the Old Testament (which so few modern Christians seem to take to heart or even read). The terror the world suffers from what we suppose are a fanatical few is not some mental illness or actually a lunatic fringe, but the inevitable result of people following their fervently-believed religious faith as perfectly as they are able. Where the Christian Bible offers many escape valves for those not wanting to follow the examples of slaughter recommended in Deuteronomy or Joshua, many places where little silver-haired grandmas can find numerous and lengthy passages of goodness and love and forgiveness and passivity in the Bible, such escape valves are almost non-existent in the Koran and the hadith, and the exhortations to kill one's way to paradise are everywhere.
I have long known that to whatever extent we are pluralistic concerning religion in our culture we receive no such license toward leniency and acceptance from the faiths themselves; no religion claims that it's OK to allow, much less to accept and scrutinize, other gods and other faiths. Usually the prohibitions against this liberalism are of the most extreme sort. Ergo, religious moderates are, practically by definition, following their creed badly--certainly less stringently than the fundamentalists, who are, almost measurably with the abacus of the faith's printed word, "better" religious people. But moreso than with other major faiths, he argues, there is little room and virtually no guidance for moderation in Islam. To the extent you (or your wife or children or whoever) waffle in your faith, you are at risk for being put to death for heresy.
Lastly (for this part), he cautions that the democracy we hope to impose via our war in Iraq, though well-intended, fails to take stock of the fundaments of the religion that underlies and shapes the entire region.
At this point in their history, give most Muslims the freedom to vote, and they will freely vote to tear out their political freedoms by the root...
This is a terrible truth that we have to face: the only thing that currently stands between us and the roiling ocean of Muslim unreason is a wall of tyranny and human rights abuses that we have helped to erect. This situation must be remedied, but we cannot merely force Muslim dictators from power and open the polls. It would be like opening the polls to the Christians of the fourteenth century.
Again, right or wrong he is very well-spoken and thought-provoking. More when I finish.
**Last Chapter** (4/26/06)
Finished. Apart from his next-to-last chapter, which deals with meditation and alternative--that is, non-faith-based--approaches to "spirituality" (I don't even know what the hell that word means; isn't a reference to spirits intrinsically faith-based? Isn't the very term a silly ghost story?) he sticks to his target like an Inquisitor beating a heretic.
My last few scattered thoughts:
He has clearly spent a lot of time processing this subject and things adjacent to it, and he brings a focussed and wide-ranging intelligence to the task. As a philosopher, he spends some time in the middle talking about the bases for ethics and morality, and while I agree with most of what he writes and have spent some time chewing on these topics, he goes further, into territory that is unfamiliar to me.
But this side trip (if that's what it is) does not weaken his central thesis in any way, and he makes and remakes this point repeatedly in the course of the book. Actually, if I were to criticize anything, it would be this: the inherent weaknesses of religious faith and the threat it poses to civilization could be made and defended and supported--a couple times over, even--in a work half this length. I'm not unhappy that he finds different ways to look at, and restate, his objections to faith, but (again) if you're already on board with him then this repetition is unnecessary, and if you're not on board then I wonder how much additional ground is to be gained by each restatement. That's more of an observation than a criticism, I guess. I'm very glad the book exists and I certainly could never have done so well, let alone do better, than his choices of what to cover and how to do it. I agree that if we can be made to admit the preposterousness of faiths not our own, we are a step closer to recognizing that absolutely nothing separates our own faith from those we see as patently absurd. All right, criticism retracted.
He has included in this paperback issue an afterword wherein he addresses the main four or five criticisms that people have leveled at the work; and I am again reminded that he is almost impossibly well spoken and clear in his presentation and defense of his most central points. The rest of it warrants some time for me to process.
Here are a few more juicy quotes from practically 250 pages of nonstop quotes:
About the immorality of pacifism:
While it can seem noble enough when the stakes are low, pacifism is ultimately nothing more than a willingness to die, and to let others die, at the pleasure of the world's thugs. It should be enough to note that a single sociopath, armed with nothing more than a knife, could exterminate a city full of pacifists...
Gandhi's was a world in which millions more would have died in the hopes that Nazis would have one day doubted the goodness of their Thousand Year Reich. Ours is a world in which bombs must occasionally fall where such doubts are in short supply. Here we come upon a terrible facet of ethically asymmetric warfare: when your enemy has no scruples, your own scruples become another weapon in his hands.
And from the last chapter:
It is time we realized that to presume knowledge where one has only pious hope is a species of evil. Wherever conviction grows in inverse proportion to its justification, we have lost the very basis of human cooperation. Where we have reasons for what we believe, we have no need of faith; where we have no reasons, we have lost both our connection to the world and to one another. People who harbor strong convictions without evidence belong at the margins of our societies, not in our halls of power. The only thing we should respect in a person's faith is his desire for a better life in this world; we need never have respected his certainty that one awaits him in the next.
And he offers this summary:
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...
Man is manifestly not the measure of all things. This universe is shot through with mystery. The very fact of its being, and of our own, is a mystery absolute, and the only miracle worthy of the name. The consciousness that animates us is itself central to this mystery and the ground for any experience we might wish to call "spiritual." No myths need be embraced for us to commune with the profundity of our circumstance. No personal God need be worshiped for us to live in awe at the beauty and immensity of creation. No tribal fictions need be rehearsed for us to realize, one fine day, that we do, in fact, love our neighbors, that our happiness is inextricable from their own, and that our interdependence demands that people everywhere be given the opportunity to flourish.