A Review and Response to Sam Harris’ The End of Faith

(I wrote this review several years ago, and post it now, as it is as timely as ever.)

“You’ve simply got to read the book,” my friend e-mailed me. “It explains so well why we have evolved to the stage where we simply can’t afford religion anymore.”

”I haven’t read The End of Faith yet,” I replied, “though I know that it and other books like The God Delusion [by Richard Dawkins] and God Is Not Great [by Christopher Hitchens] are stirring up a lot of press and passion. I suppose I should. How about we both discuss it?”

I haven’t heard back from my friend yet, but I took him up at his recommendation and read The End of Faith by Sam Harris. If my friend wanted to “save me” or convert me to atheism, his book recommendation failed to do the trick. But I’m glad I read it.

Harris’ argument against any and all organized religion goes roughly like this:

  • Religious faith effectively requires mental and intellectual suicide.
  • This mental and intellectual suicide is dangerous: do this and you could do or approve of anything else (like flying passenger jets into skyscrapers)
  • In a world of nuclear weapons and of economic and technological advances and interconnection, religious extremists with a 14th Century mentality have access to 21st Century weapons and their killing scales [nowhere does Harris question these 21st Century weapons].
  • Therefore, the human race, to survive, cannot afford the luxury of any gods, faith or religion.

To Harris, it does no good to object, “But my religious beliefs regulate my own behavior, not yours, and they are all about peace and non-violence.” Harris insists that peaceful and “moderate” religionists are just as guilty as rabid fundamentalists on a bloody jihad, because peaceful and even pacifist believers, by the very act of believing in God, are providing intellectual ammunition and cover for the jihadi and the Crusader. That strikes me a bit like saying that, since my dear, departed, Slovakian grandmother was opposed to the Nazis, she is just as guilty of the fire bombing of Dresden in 1945 as were the Allied Air Forces. I don’t hold atheists like him guilty of the crimes of other atheists like Stalin, Mao Tse Tung and Pol Pot.

Nor is Harris impressed by all the good and virtue that religious people have shown or done over the millenia. Without religious faith, he believes, humanity might have been even more virtuous and have advanced farther and more quickly than it has. And since most people in most cultures have been religious anyway, there was almost no one else around to do anything at all, either good or bad. Finally, Harris asserts, whatever good religion and the religious may have done is vastly outweighed by the evils they have committed, such as the Crusades, the Inquisition, jihads, witch-burnings, pogroms, and child abuse and its cover-ups.

I’d like to know by what measure he might possibly make such calculations.

Which is all quite sobering, to say the least. But it didn’t prove to be as scary as I had thought. I began the book with some hesitation, wondering, in the back of my mind, if this book should contain the drop-dead indisputable evidence and arguments that will prove God a lie and the Christian faith a hoax. Instead, Harris seems to assume these things, and then builds his case against religion and the religious from there. Most of his cases involve setting up the most absurd examples and outrageous caricatures of religion, and then knocking them down, verbally or logically. After so many pages of ridicule and the worst assumptions and stereotypes, you start to wonder when and how that ever got confused for critical, logical thinking.

It would be so comforting if his salvos against church, mosque and synagogue lacked any potent ammunition. But Harris has a lot of rotten fruit lying around to lob at us precisely because the church has provided so much of it. He is spot on when he asks questions like, How is that Galileo and Copernicus were excommunicated from the Church while Hitler never was? I won’t even begin to say what projectiles the mosque or the synagogue have coming back at them because, as a Christian, I have to take responsibility for what has been done in my name, or in the name of my Lord. And there’s plenty to take responsibility for. But Harris reserves his most shrill and frightening language for Islam.

At the very least, Harris builds a very strong case for separation of church and state. I suspect that he is unaware of the number of Christians, especially Anabaptists, who are with him on that one, or who even made it possible by their martyrdom. He also builds a very strong case for humility, especially within the ranks of church leadership and structure. I also felt some sympathy for his arguments against the church imposing its faith-based morality upon the wider society. As much as we might rightly decry sexual immorality, abortion and recreational drug use, do we really, as Christians, want to do everything necessary to deny, discourage and punish these things among nonbelievers? Is our witness better served by going after people for doing these things, or by people going after us for not doing them?

Harris also makes the case for secular society not giving the church a free pass and a respectable, but hypocritical, nod anymore. As someone very concerned about the church’s witness, I would much rather deal with Harris’ kind of hostile engagement than with the disdainful but polite indifference and calculated avoidance that I so often encounter. Harris repeatedly asserts that one can only arrive at religious belief by pulling the plug on your mental faculties and running in a blind panic from any and all contrary beliefs. But I have found that some of my deepest spiritual breakthroughs and insights have come from honest debate and discussion with people of other religions, or of no religion at all.

Which is another weakness of The End of Faith. He assumes that dialog and discussion with religious people are pointless and impossible. The End of Faith is, therefore, meant not so much to convert (or de-convert) believers, but to preach to the choir and dish up heaping, steaming plates of verbal red meat for any and all who have been hurt by or angry with organized religion. I say this not to frighten us but to help us prepare for the suspicious-to-hostile missional context in which are increasingly finding ourselves. There are more of such people around than we might think, judging by how quickly the newest atheist manifestos are flying off the shelves of bookstores and enjoying unexpected additional printings. The manners and politesse by which Harris, Dawkins and others might once have given us at least a respectful space are wearing thin. I occasionally run into this emerging stridency in places such as the French language conversational groups I sometimes attend, where, at least once, other non-believers were so shocked by the way someone else was verbally abusing my faith that they came to its defense without my having to say a thing. Rather than feeling aggrieved or insulted, I was glad to be out of my customary church cocoon and in contact with such beliefs.

For beliefs these are, requiring every bit as much faith on Harris’ part as do mine. For example, Harris believes that science will soon explain all things moral and spiritual, such as conversion or virtue, by way of neurobiology or evolutionary advantage, thereby rendering God and faith obsolete. He also expects reason and evolution to give us soon a workable moral code which will be self-evidently correct, at least to everyone with a university degree. Aside from being a faith statement no less hopeful than mine, what would a brain scan of meditation or an evolutionary advantage for prayer or virtue prove except that they happened in the brain and were good for our survival? A believer in God might find that quite reassuring, not challenging.

What Harris, Dawkins, Hitchens and other militant missionary atheists overlook is that they are effectively serving up another religion in place of the ones they condemn: a religion of positive scientific advance and enlightenment, with self, science and society as God. By looking for evolutionary and neuro-biological explanations for spirituality, they are also admitting that humans are incurably religious. Martin Luther even said so. And while they accuse all religions of being inherently violent, lacking any internal restraint against murder and domination (they’ve never read Mennonite theology), their own proffered religions also lack any internal restraint against violence or persecution of people who differ, whatever their faith.

But I agree with Harris and others that we have less to fear from atheists like themselves and more to fear from religions and religionists in the service of ego, power and domination. I believe it was Plato who said that there were three kinds of atheists:

  1. One who says that because there is no God, we are therefore free to discover how evil we might be. They are few and are often safely in jail, having found out just how evil they might be.
  2. One who says that because there is no God, we must be as good and virtuous as possible on our own power. Among these we find some very noble souls. Despite the drubbing he gave me, I’ll give Harris the benefit of the doubt, and place him in this category. He does work hard at finding an ethical approach to life. But when they find such efforts unworkable and unsustainable, such atheists are also in great danger—of becoming believers, as did Thomas Merton, C.S. Lewis and the woman who marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, and who, when I heard her story, had become a youth ministry specialist for the United Methodist Church.
  3. One who says that because there is no God, we are free to make one up for our own purposes.

This third group of atheists are the most dangerous kind, for they may actually hide behind pulpits, camouflaging themselves as believers, pastors, bishops and theologians, and thus bring disaster and disgrace upon themselves, the church and the faith that they exploit. Because they are often so adept at manipulation, disguises and demagoguery, we have much more to fear from them than from outright and openly hostile atheists like Harris and Dawkins. They are the ones who will continue to pile up the most damning evidence in Harris’ favor.

If we would take seriously our witness in the world and “be ready to offer an explanation to everyone who asks of you the reason for your hope (I Peter 3:16),” then we must be ready even for an occasional outbreak of some of the hostility and contempt that Harris serves up. But just being peacefully present and available to it will itself be something of a victory, even if we don’t have all the answers to satisfy our interrogators. No one has. And its not what is asked of us as witnesses. It may even be that, by peacefully and respectfully absorbing some of the wrath that has understandably piled up over church sex abuse scandals, and the church’s historic complicity in war, segregation and the oppression of women, without returning wrath in kind, we will have provided some venue for healing and a more effective witness than any words or arguments can provide.

In the face of criticism and hostility I take comfort from the following things:

  1. that we are being held accountable to the very standards and beliefs that we, our Bible and our Christ have advocated in the world, or which are logically inferred from our beliefs and standards;
  2. that critics are always doing us a favor, often in spite of themselves. To the extent that they are right, we have learned something helpful. To the extent that they are wrong or exaggerated, we have an opportunity to display the patient and gracious love of Christ.

Often our critics and opponents are working with an element of truth. In Harris’ case, he has taken the verbal equivalent of a baseball bat to a job better suited for a surgeon’s scalpel. That so much of his fear and hostility is in reaction to religiously-based violence makes this a very good time for a peaceful Anabaptist witness to Christ that is uncompromising in its love for friend and foe alike, to the point of being willing to die for our enemies and detractors, rather than to kill them. Such love is our most powerful witness, our most convincing argument.



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