Odin Sam Harris says religious myths must die if we are to survive as a species,
Updated: Jan 16
Today July2nd,2005, the Toronto Star ran a full page review by Ron Csillag of the book (see below).
Losing faith in religion Author pleads for an age of reason that will render religious faith as archaic as the worship of Odin Sam Harris says religious myths must die if we are to survive as a species, Ron Csillag reports
Compared to Sam Harris, Karl Marx was a piker. The 19th-century political philosopher derided religion as the "opium of the people." To Harris, organized faith is more like crack cocaine,and its fruits every bit as ruinous. And we must quit the pipe, cold turkey, before it's too late.
A Stanford University philosophy graduate and now a doctoral student in neuroscience, Harris has delivered a 323-page jeremiad against religion entitled The End of Faith (W.W. Norton), a bracing, unsubtle yet eloquent plea — more like a clarion call — for a stop to dogmatic religion as we know it, and the start of an age of reason that will render religious faith as archaic as the worship of Odin.
Winner of the 2005 PEN Award for Non-Fiction, Harris's explosive book, as more than one reviewer has noted, articulates fiercely and fearlessly what more and more people are thinking but few are willing to say in polite company: religious faith is not only blind, but deaf, mute, absurd, irrational, and threatens our very existence.
Like other intellectuals traumatized by the 9/11 attacks, Harris began writing on Sept. 12, 2001 — "the moment it became obvious we were meandering into a religious war and not articulating the truth to ourselves," he told the Star in an interview prior to addressing Toronto's three-day ideaCity conference.
The first draft of the first chapter was "an unpublishable screed," the author concedes. He took a breath, cooled off as much as possible, and produced a prolonged nuclear assault on religious extremists and moderates alike, and the theology ("ignorance with wings") that propels Muslim suicide bombers, Christian anti-abortion zealots and Jewish settlers in Israel.
Harris lists about two dozen violent conflicts around the world which pit one religion against another. On the Indian subcontinent, for example, more than 1 million Muslims and Hindus have died in three official wars and continuous bloodletting between India and Pakistan, both nuclear powers.
While religious pluralists — in these cases as in other hot spots — may cite failed diplomacy, "in truth," writes Harris, "the entire conflict is born of an irrational embrace of myth." These are just two countries poised to exterminate each other "because they disagree about the `facts' that are every bit as fanciful as the names of Santa's reindeer."
Myths die hard, Harris realizes, but die they must if we are to survive as a species. For now that millions embrace the metaphysics of martyrdom or the truth of the book of Revelation — and are armed to the teeth — "words like `God' and `Allah' must go the way of `Apollo' and `Baal' or they will unmake our world," he warns. Faith-based religion "must suffer the same slide into obsolescence" as alchemy.
If not, and as long as it is acceptable for someone to believe that he knows how God wants everyone on Earth to live, "we will continue to murder one another on account of our myths."
Other example of Harris's carpet-bombing:
· "There is no more evidence to justify a belief in the literal existence of Yahweh or Satan than there was to keep Zeus perched upon his mountain throne or Poseidon churning the sea ... we as a species have grown perfectly intoxicated by our myths."
· "How can any person presume to know that this is the way the universe works? Because it says so in our holy books. How do we know that our holy books are free from error? Because the books themselves say so. Epistemological black holes of this sort are fast draining the light from our world."
· "Given the link between belief and action, it is clear that we can no more tolerate a diversity of religious beliefs than a diversity of beliefs about epidemiology and basic hygiene."
· "It is time we recognized that all reasonable men and women have a common enemy. It is an enemy so near to us and so deceptive, that we keep its counsel even as it threatens to destroy the very possibility of human happiness. Our enemy is nothing other than faith itself."
Harris, a genial 38-year-old raised by a Jewish mother and Quaker father in a secular environment, insists his goal was not be inflammatory. "I was at pains to modulate the drastic terms in which I see our situation," he explains. He calls his book "an argument for intellectual honesty. It's only on matters of religion that we allow people to pretend to be certain of things they are not certain about."
The book delivers a hammer blow to fundamentalists of all stripes, but also to moderates. Religious moderation, Harris argues, betrays both faith and reason equally. Moderates are, in large part, responsible for religious strife "because their beliefs provide the context in which scriptural literalism and religious violence can never be adequately opposed" — all thanks to the sacredness in which we hold tolerance.
Put even more bluntly, Harris's view is that we can no longer afford the political correctness that guards us from violating the taboo of knocking someone's religion. He leads the way in the brave new front by flatly declaring that the Bible and the Qur'an "both contain mountains of life-destroying gibberish."
Harris argues that the kind of intolerance he advances is merely a "conversational" one.
"We need to be more intolerant across the board," he offers. "One of the taboos I'm breaking in my book — and it's more of a taboo among moderates than fundamentalists — is noticing the differences among religions. I'm not willing to say Islam and Christianity are alike. There's much to be said against Christianity and Judaism, but at this moment, Islam presents some unique problems to a global civilization forming. It's really taboo to point that out. We have this multicultural, politically correct notion that there's no place to stand where you can rigorously criticize another person's faith. But if you can't go to the mat on something like honour killing, it seems to me that the rudiments of civilization have been lost."
While Harris is tough on Christianity (a story of "mankind's misery and ignorance rather than of its requited love of God") and Judaism, which prescribes death for a disturbingly long list of infractions, none of which, Harris feels are meant as metaphors, he reserves his harshest appraisal for Islam.
"We are at war with Islam," he writes unflinchingly. "We are at war with precisely the vision of life that is prescribed to all Muslims in the Qur'an." He follows that up with five solid pages of citations from the Islamic holy text which purport to call for violence against the non-believer. Anyone who reads those "and can still not see a link between Muslim faith and Muslim violence should probably consult a neurologist."
Calling Islam a religion of peace, as U.S. President George Bush has done repeatedly, "is really playing hide the ball with core dogmas of the faith: martyrdom and jihad," he continued in the interview. "You just have to look at the example of Muhammad. He was not a hippy who was crucified. He was the Julius Caesar of the Muslim world. Clearly, many Muslims expect that kind of victory in this world by Islam."
As for the Bible, it's "really a deplorable document. There is no reason whatsoever to abolish slavery if you consult the Bible. Clearly, the creator of the universe expects us to keep slaves."
While Harris doesn't deny that religions carry a large moral component, he believes one does not have to be religious in order to be moral. "I don't think everyday morality requires any irrationality. The morality of societies that are far more atheistic than my own attest to this."
And while he does dwell on all that is wrong with the major monotheistic faiths, he does have some good to say about so-called eastern religions and various mystical strains for their de-emphasis of the self.
But there is hope, evidenced by the fact that "nobody's dying for Poseidon." An utter revolution in our thinking can be accomplished in a single generation if parents and teachers simply gave honest answers to children. And there's little time to waste, Harris warns, for there's no reason to think that we can survive our religious differences indefinitely.