Sunday, April 23, 2006

More Sam Harris

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.

Amen, brother.


The Retropolitan said...

I read that last year, and echoed about 99% of the statements he made. Despite the obvious danger that both fundamentalism and 'fuzzy' spirituality can bring, it's still nigh-impossible to criticize them in society. I know that I've alienated at least one of my friends for agreeing with the statements about moderates in the book.

The Retropolitan said...

Also, you need more pictures of those puppies.

Anonymous said...

The road to hell is paved with good intentions, my friend. Remember Pascal when you choose sides. There can be only one.

Alex Random

wunelle said...

Established religions perfectly exemplify the meme of Richard Dawkins, a unit of cultural evolution which seeks its fittest form for an environment; and the environment is the human psyche in our indigenous social habitat (over the last 5,000 years). These memes have evolved to a form where they satisfy our need for a power structure (a way for the power-hungry to lead, and for the rest of us to be led) and where everyone can be enlisted as footsoldiers to keep the order. The inability to question this order should naturally be a part of the structure, especially when the genesis traces back to pre-scientific times.

So many, many people believe in their core that religious faith is a GOOD thing, a way to BE A GOOD PERSON; it is a mechanism for them to achieve an honorable desire--to be and do good. The faith is designed to achieve this very belief. And this bedrock belief is the gravity that keeps everything flowing downhill.

Even now, reading his book, I despair that our destruction is inevitable, since I think there is no way in hell to get people to really look at and question these things. Their whole world has been structured to keep them from it.

Anonymous said...

I recently heard a story on NPR from a man by the name of Kevin Phillips who wrote a book titled American Theocracy. His thesis is that the fall of great nations has happened numerous times before in countries such as Rome and most recently Great Britain. He links all of this to the rise of fundamentalism.

A Book I might want to purchase on Amazon, as well as The End of Faith.

Alex Random

The Retropolitan said...

I think it bears noting that Pascal's Wager was a very poorly thought-out reason to believe.

Anonymous said...

Regarding the comment on Pascal's Wager:


I meant Occam's Razor.

Sorry, I'll stop now.

Alex Random

Anonymous said...

Not having read the book I can't be sure, but I suspect that I also agree almost entirely with the author. The trouble is, what good does it do the few of us who agree with him to know that the rest of the world's population is probably completely unwilling to consider any challanges to their faith? I don't usually think that sticking my head in the sand is the best course of action, but when there is no other course it doesn't seem so bad. When I can see certain doom on the horizon it seems that rather than discussing the inevitability of it and how miserable an experience it will be I'd rather just hope that those storm clouds are farther away than they appear.

We have no hope of fixing the problem, so I'll choose to think happier thoughts.

-- Jeffy

mysterygirl! said...

My comment disappeared! It was an extended version of something like this:

This sound like a really interesting read, and this guy should go on The Daily Show if he hasn't already.

wunelle said...

How DARE Blogger eat comments for one of my posts! How DARE IT!

But I appreciate the comments (those that survive the gauntlet).

I'm nearing the halfway point now, and he just keeps grinding away. I'm about to start the chapter about Islam, which certain critiques I've read say he is especially fanatical against. But so far he seems quite reasonable to me, though I am naturally inclined extend my hand to any attempt to put faith under the lights.

(He's so damn quotable tho--I keep wanting to post quote after quote.)

Joshua said...

I just ordered it on half, I will let you know when I get done reading it.

How is Occam's Razor any better, Alex?

Anonymous said...


Occam's Razor is superior for teleological reasons, naturally. Anything less is pure sophistry.

My apostasy notwithstanding, and not to be oblique, your answer lies in definitions.

Alex Random

wunelle said...


Eschew obfuscation!

Joshua said...

Right, I know what Occam's (Ockham's) razor IS, I was asking how it has any relevance to above discussion.

And how it ties in with your comment "Remember [Occam's razor] when you choose sides. There can be only one.

Occam states that an explanation of a theory should make as few asumptions as possible. "Things shouldn't be multiplied beyond necessity"

It does not even, really, relate to what Bil posted, or what you replied. In fact, The Retropolitan's comments aside, Pascal's Wager serves as the better of the two theories you named--not, of course for its ACTUAL value to theological debate, but for its, and this is at the very least, value to topic.

And, as long as I am ranting, Occam's razor is about as useful, in philosophical discussion, as Pascal's wager. Chatton, and later Kant, both argue correctly, and more scientifically, that if something cannot be proven (or verified, I guess) by the fewest number of things, than more must be added until it is proven.

Now, I am not looking to get into a "flame war", or even a debate. However, I take the smallest exception to platitudes, no matter how eloquently they are spun.

Anonymous said...


The debate would be quickly lost, I fear. Things aren't always what they seem, even obvious platitudes. The enigma remains in definitions, the ontology not as unambiguous as you may think: a puzzle best solved through quiet reflection.

Wunelle is most capable of discerning this true significance. It is a task he was born for. The road to hell that his good intentions pave is the only one of value. Occam's razor's appropriateness lies in this simple fact.

Alex Random

Joshua said...

"The debate would be quickly lost, I fear."

In that, Alex, we agree.

Anonymous said...


And in that, you have solved the puzzle.

The victory is yours.

Alex Random

wunelle said...

I should probably mention that A. Random is a longtime friend of mine, who is apparently (without telling me) working toward his Zenmaster's Certificate of Obtusion and Confustication.

That teetered on being the most contentious agreement I've had the pleasure of reading!


Anonymous said...

Getting back to the book under discussion (or at least a little more on track), this view that we maybe shouldn't be so accepting of Islam is pretty interesting. Our society seems to be willing to draw a distinction between bona-fide religions that we want to grant broad freedoms and other shadier groups that we want to discourage. When a group seems oriented toward harmful beliefs we tend to find ways to rein them in as much as possible.

Maybe that should be the case with Islam - if belief in this religion implies strict intolerance and promotion of violent behavior then it seems reasonable to try to dissuade folks from following that religion.

A religion that preaches total intolerance of other religions is kind of by definition incompatible with a free and pluralistic society.

This is a tricky path to follow, though. Just look at all the troubles China is having with its attempts to discourage adherence to Falun Gong (whether or not it makes any sense). When so much of our society is built around the tenets of generic Christianity it is hard to evaluate what ought to be allowed and what could be considered extreme and unreasonable. I tend to classify a lot more as unreasonable than some folks might, but who gets to decide?

-- Jeffy

wunelle said...

The difficulty is that it almost necessarily boils down to a competition between faiths, none of which constitute any better a perch than the others (and all of which are worse than something based on the scienfitic method where evidence and testability--and falsifiability--are valued as a means of coming to KNOW something)(Not that you, Jeffy, need instruction in science!).

I'm reminded of W's father, who was asked in a press conference whether atheists could be patriots. He answered, as we watched his mind doing the furious political calculations of the costs of what he wanted so desperately to say, "No, atheists are not patriots!" The idea (from god knows where) was that it didn't matter which groundless mythology you chose to embrace, just so long as you didn't go asking for evidence or some such method that makes us feel bad about ourselves! Thus, American pluralism.

I think it can't come down to "THIS faith is better because it's objectively less harmful to people." Rather, we need to get to a point where we heed the stories and moral lessons found in the various bibles without believing them literally true or trying to model our societies after their antique social details.

And good luck with that. As you wrote to me, we can only have a conversation among people who are already convinced; there's no reaching the devout--and this is so by design.

Joshua said...

Guess who was on Colbert Report last night. Give up? yeah. It was Sam Harris.

Maybe John Stewart would have been a more thought provoking interview, but I have to say, is there a better foil for Sam Harris than the character Stephen Colbert portrays on that show?

wunelle said...

I must sheepishly confess to being completely in the dark about the Colbert Report (slinking away, tail down, to do a quick google search).

But I'd have loved to see him speak live.

Jeffy said...

I love that simile - "like an Inquisitor beating a heretic" - Love it!

I think you've hit the nail on the head in your comments - one of the worst aspects of so many religions is their insistance that believers are bound by religious duty to spread thier one true religion to others. I can imagine that we wouldn't really be that bad off if folks were able to have their personal beliefs and keep them to themselves.

I used to think that even with its downsides, at least religion served the purpose of providing some guiding principles for vast groups of people who maybe couldn't be trusted to behave properly on their own. Over time I have come to think that I've been to lenient. I think I'd like to see what sort of world we'd live in if religion had never evolved (blasphemy!) and we all just lived by the Golden Rule.

wunelle said...

I think the evangelism is actually one of those very functional (if to me the most hateful) evolved adaptations: get people to feel they are morally wrong if they reject your fairy tale, and the impetus to spread it, with force if necessary, is not far behind. It's all like the getting-your-genes-into-the-next-generation aspect of genetics & natural selection.

"I can imagine that we wouldn't really be that bad off if folks were able to have their personal beliefs and keep them to themselves."

I agree that our problems as a society would be lessened somewhat by this; at least there'd be no bombings or witch-burnings (or choirboy molestation). But his point that (to make a random stab) we might, for example, have had the internet and spaceflight in the 1600s if we had not been impeded by this confusion of truth and mythology still stands.

I just think the whole business of embracing the house of cards as real is harmful. It can be made moreso with action and proseletyzing and sectarianism, but it's none of it good.