Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The End of Faith, Chapter 1

Someone I love very much asked me to read the book, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason by Sam Harris. It was on the NYT Best Sellers list a while back. And now Harris has written a follow-up book. Anyway, as I was remembering some of the things that were discussed at the women’s retreat this weekend, especially about whether or not genuine friendships could exist between people of different political or religious beliefs, I thought about this person who has recently shifted (again) from Christian to agnostic. At the retreat, I had made the statement that yes, I have friends that I don’t agree with on either of these accounts, and they are still dear friends that I love and enjoy being with. I stated that we are supposed to see people as God sees them, as people, made in His image. People to be loved. Period. Not as people to be converted or changed or “fixed.”

So, when this friend asked me to read The End of Faith and to engage in a “non-emotional, rational discussion” about it, I agreed. With one caveat: that they read a book of my choosing (Patmos: A Place of Healing For the Soul by Peter France.) and show me the same respect. They agreed. Game on. (I wrote about the Patmos book here.)

I thought I might do a little “book review in progress” from time to time here on my blog. I’m also writing personal letters to my friend as we discuss these books, but I won’t include the personal aspects here. I would love to hear any thoughts from my readers…. You can post a COMMENT at the end of this post, or send me an email at If you send me an email, please let me know if you prefer that it remain private, otherwise I might quote from it in a future blog.

Chapter 1: Reason in Exile

Pretty soon into his first chapter, Harris states:

Your beliefs define your vision of the world; they dictate your behavior; they determine your emotional responses to other human beings…. While all faiths have been touched, here and there, by the spirit of ecumenicalism, the central tenet of every religious tradition is that all others are mere repositories of error or, at best, dangerously incomplete. Intolerance is thus intrinsic to every creed. Once a person believes—really believes—that certain ideas can lead to eternal happiness, or to its antithesis, he cannot tolerate the possibility that the people he loves might be led astray by the blandishments of unbelievers.

Makes you stop and think, doesn’t it? Is it possible for me, as an Orthodox Christian, to hold my faith strongly and not judge others who belief differently? If I believe that my faith is the correct one (and the word Orthodox actually means right or straight belief) does that not automatically mean that I believe everyone else is wrong? Or that those I love who don’t believe as I do are missing the boat? And would this belief cause me to behave in certain ways towards those outside that boat? I think it did, and I did, when I was younger. I was probably, by Harris’ definition, a religious extremist.

Harris says that there are two types of religious persons, religious moderates and religious extremists. And then he begins to state his case:

One of the central themes of this book, however, is that religious moderates are themselves the bearers of a terrible dogma: they imagine that the path to peace will be paved once each of us has learned to respect the unjustified beliefs of others. I hope to show that the very ideal of religious tolerance—born of the notion that every human being should be free to believe whatever he wants about God—is one of the principal forces driving us toward the abyss.

He continues to argue that religious moderates are basically not being honest. And maybe they’re not. He calls them “failed fundamentalists.” Interesting observation. And maybe that’s the path I was on in the early years of my conversion to Orthodoxy. But then he says:

Religious moderation is the product of secular knowledge and scriptural ignorance…. By failing to live by the letter of the texts, while tolerating the irrationality of those who do, religious moderates betray faith and reason equally…. Religious moderation… closes the door to more sophisticated approaches to spirituality, ethics, and the building of strong communities….moderates merely ask that we relax our standards of adherence to ancient superstitions and taboos, while otherwise maintaining a belief system that was passed down to us from men and women whose lives were simply ravaged by their basic ignorance about the world.

I don’t know what men and women he’s referring to… the early Christians, Christ’s disciples, “men who turned the world upside down?” Or the Church Fathers of the following centuries? Men like Ignatius of Antioch, Ambrose of Milan, Basil the Great or Gregory the Theologian? These men’s lives were hardly “ravaged” nor were they ignorant about the world. Maybe Harris would consider me (and other Orthodox Christians) to be religious extremists. By his definitions, I am neither an extremist or moderate. And although his bibliography is impressive, I can’t really believe that he understands the heart of Orthodoxy. Harris begins his apologetic with man, whereas an Orthodox Christian would begin with God. Here’s an example:

…most of us have emotional and spiritual needs that are now addressed—however obliquely and at a terrible price—by mainstream religion. And these are needs that a mere understanding of our world, scientific or otherwise, will never fulfill. There is clearly a sacred dimension to our existence, and coming to terms with it could well be the highest purpose of human life. But we will find that it requires no faith in untestable propositions—Jesus was born of a virgin; the Koran is the word of God—for us to do this.

Again, he begins with man. With man’s needs. Needs that he admits a secular understanding of our world will never fulfill. I’m interested to see where he goes with this… what he will posit as the fulfillment of those needs, if not God.

My apologetic begins with God. God reveals himself to those who seek Him. Whether or not he also reveals himself to those who seek to disprove him is something I have no knowledge of, so I can’t speak to that. (But Peter France speaks to it in his book, Patmos: A Place of Healing for the Soul, actually.)

Back to the religious moderates. Harris says that religious moderates “don’t like the personal and social costs that a full embrace of scripture imposes on us.” I can understand his point. If your reference for relating to others is sola scriptura, a theology limited to the written scriptures, then yes, it’s a high cost to pay. But relating to others based on the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, and a growing relationship with the Son, Jesus Christ, and a life lived seeking the God the Holy Father, isn’t always going to be socially acceptable, either. But it can be a life filled with love for all mankind. I’m certainly not a good example of this, but that doesn’t mean I can’t be…. The Saints we imitate and venerate were consumed with love for their fellow man, regardless of his race, religion, or politics.

The rest of Chapter 1 of Harris’ book deals mainly with the conflicts in Palestine, the Balkans, North Ireland, Kashmir, Sudan, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Sri Lanka, and the Caucasus, of which Harris says:

In these places religion has been the explicit cause of literally millions of deaths in the last ten years.

When he talks about conflicts, wars, genocide, and other horrible suffering caused by religious factions, he says that most Americans aren’t so different than Osama bin Laden, in that we “cherish the idea that certain fantastic propositions can be believed without evidence. Such heroic acts of credulity are thought not only acceptable but redeeming—even necessary.”

Scary accusation. But he spends most of the rest of the chapter quoting from the Koran. Not from Christian Scriptures.

And then he talks about spiritual experiences and psychic phenomena and the ability to “transform the character of our experience.” He states, near the end of his first chapter, that

Spirituality must be deeply rational… Even now we see the first stirrings among psychologists and neuroscientists of what may one day become a genuinely rational approach to these matters.

Reason. That’s where he’s headed next:

We must find our way to a time when faith, without evidence, disgraces anyone who would claim it. Given the present state of the world, there appears to be no other future worth wanting….It is imperative that we begin speaking plainly about the absurdity of most of our religious beliefs.

Whew. I’m going to have to take a breather before reading Chapter 2, “The Nature of Belief.”

For now, I’ll close with a quote that my friend, Doug, uses as his email signature:

"And those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music." -- Fredrich Nietsche

Call me crazy… can you hear the music, Sam?


Erin said...

I haven't read this book, so on some level you (and everyone else) should take everything I'm saying with a bucket of salt. I'm responding only to the quotes I see here and to your comments. That said, I think you are beginning to hit on the crux of the disconnect between Harris' arguments and those of Orthodox theology. That is, Harris starts with man, Orthodoxy starts with God. We can't explain religion and faith and the shortcomings of such a worldview by using examples from our world and our history. Faith presupposes the existence of the unseen, and as such, the nature of the unseen has to be considered if we are to have the conversation. Were terrible atrocities committed by the Orthodox AND the Moslems AND the Catholics in the Balkans? Absolutely! But does that necessarily say anything about their faith? Maybe, but not necessarily. We have to consider whether their belief systems condone such acts. And for that matter, we have to consider by which code of ethics we judge which acts are or aren't evil. And even then, we have to consider whether it is a certain group of believers who condone such acts, or if it is really the absolute teaching of that faith. For example, there were certain visible groups of Orthodox in the Balkans who committed and condoned genocide. But does this mean that the theology of the Orthodox Church supports such behavior? Absolutely not! I just means that some people chose to use their religious identity in a perverse and hateful way. I guess I could go on for a long time, since I've been reading Balkan literature a lot lately. The point is, if we are to discuss faith and faith systems, we can't do it solely by discussing experiential manifestations of how groups operate. We have to consider the nature of the unseen in which the group places its faith. And anyway, people form "camps" based on all kinds of identity, not just religious identity. And intolerance can exist among all kinds of groups for various reasons, not just religious. But even more, it seems that Harris' arguments begin on the assumption that all faith systems are wrong. What if one is right? What if one is the truth? Then what? Then we have to start over the whole conversation.

Susan Cushman said...

Good points, Erin. Harris would say about you that "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.... It is clear that Muslims hate the West in the very terms of their faith and that the Koran mandates such hatred." He quotes from the Koran several times. And to Christians he says: "The Bible, it seems certain, was the work of sand-strewn men and women who thought the earth was flat...." and "Religious moderates are in large part responsible for the religious conflicts in our world because their beliefs provide the context in which scriptural literalism and religious violence can never be adequately opposed." He says we're doomed because we're not willing to change: "... the only thing that permits human beings to collaborate with one another in a truly open-ended way is their willingness to have their beliefs modified by new facts." As Erin pointed out, faith isn't about facts. It's mystical. And while I share many of Harris' fears about where the violence is the world is leading, I don't share his solution, more of which I'm sure he reveals in Chapter 2 and beyond....

John Cameron said...


I've wondered where your blog was for the past few weeks and am now realizing that you've been posting, but my feed reader isn't delivering.

I don't know why, or if there is anything you can do to fix it, but I thought you might like to know.

Sue said...

Two thoughts:

One: Sam Harris states, "...the central tenet of every religious tradition is that all others are mere repositories of error or, at best, dangerously incomplete." What would the/a central tenet of a non-religious tradition be? One tenet would be that there is no God, and, therefore, no basis for Mr. Harris's dislike of the results of certain acts done in the name of religion other than his own opinion and possibly the opinions of others (but not those committing the acts, nor those supporting them). And, who is to say who is right? What fellow random, here-by-chance glob of cells entity or entities on this earth are we to look to for guidance, as we "come to terms" with the "sacred dimension to our existence?" And, do I really want to argue about it? Hmmmm...

Thought Two: When Walt Whitman heard "the learn'd astronomer" with "proofs, figures,...," he "became tired and sick," until he, "in the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time, look’d up in perfect silence at the stars." This is not to say he was writing about God, but that he was aware of the night sky and another, real part of his being in a way that transcended the rational.

Jordan said...

Hi Susan!

Sorry I missed you this past weekend in Memphis.

Like Erin, I should preface this by saying that I have not read the book. But based on your posts and comments, here are a few thoughts:

First of all, I don’t believe the author is at all justified in saying that it is “self-evident that ordinary people cannot be moved to burn genial old scholars alive for blaspheming the Koran....”

Is he completely ignorant of the many millions of people tortured and murdered by atheists in the Soviet Union, Cambodia, Cuba, China, and other places throughout the twentieth century? It seems to me that all people are ultimately people of faith, i.e. people who believe deeply in certain things. Thus, an atheist who leaves a particular religion may initially believe that he is freeing himself from faith itself. But we so often see that simply not believing in God can quickly turn into a firmly held, almost religious belief that there is no God. And this firmly held belief that there is no God can indeed become a fanatical belief resulting in violent efforts to eliminate the belief in God throughout the world by any means necessary, which is exactly what happened in the atheistic communist regimes of the twentieth century. So I don’t buy the dichotomy between “religious” faith and all other types of faith.

I also don’t agree, in general, with the false dichotomy between faith and reason. Again, we all hold certain faith positions, whether we admit it or not. And when these faith positions are challenged, we all have the ability to use our God-given reason to see if our faith holds up against critical scrutiny.

I think a more realistic and relevant dichotomy, especially with regard to religious violence, is the dichotomy between reason and the passions. This is the point of the book of IV Maccabees – “whether devout reason is sovereign over the emotions” (1:1). When our passions and emotions overcome us, that can lead to a distortion of our faith, even to the point of violence, as can be seen in the religious wars mentioned by the author as well as persecution by atheists of religious believers throughout the past century. That is why we are taught in the Orthodox Church to be dispassionate – to have control over our emotions.

Incidentally, in most of my discussions with atheists and agnostics, I have found that their arguments against Christianity are much more rooted in emotion than in reason. Although they present Christianity as unreasonable, usually the more you talk with them, you will find that they have at some point been deeply hurt by Christian friends or family members. Which is why what you said about loving them unconditionally and not seeing them as objects to be fixed is so important.

Now all that said, the question that remains is whether a given faith position is true. I will be interested to see if the author addresses this question. Simply noting that both Muslims and Christians have been guilty of violence is meaningless, since the same can be said of atheists. The question is, What do the different religions actually teach, and can these teachings stand up to reasonable challenges? It will be interesting to see if he addresses this.

Susan Cushman said...

I received the following comment via email today. The commenter prefers to remain anonymous, but agreed to allow me to share the brief comment here. (There is much more this person could say if time allowed.) Here it is:

I read your comments on the book. Harris is a bright fellow, obviously. I agree with a number of points that he makes. However, one of his basic assertions is not mine - and maybe it is an issue of definition. Tolerance and intolerance. Obviously, Jesus speaks of the Truth, and proclaims Himself to be the Truth, and yet He loves and invites all. I doubt Harris would agree that we can hold tenaciously to the Faith without being intolerant. I would differ. I suspect he would then cite all manner of horrible failings of religious activists (and he would be accurate) to say I am off my rocker. Our only defense is to live the Truth - not so easy!

lisafran said...

Hi Susan--I'm Terry Bernardini's friend, the mental patient. I am not pleased with the tone of Mr. Harris' tome. As my teenagers say, he thinks he is "all that." Just like you, my theology begins with God. I believe that God reveals Himself to those whom He draws to Himself. God revealed Himself to Saul(Paul)on the road to Damascus so perhaps he does reveal Himself to those who seek to disprove Him.
I may be a theological simpleton, but Mr.Harris' explanations of religious moderates and extremists are his opinion, not truth. Maybe my tastes will become "sophisticated" by Chapter 2.

I enjoy your site. It makes me want to sit down and have a cup of joe with you.

The Ochlophobist said...

Forgive me for this obscenely long comment.

I have not read the book either thus I offer comment here with the caveat that I may be missing Harris' points. That said, given the tone of Harris' prose quoted here and in reviews I have read elsewhere, I am not inclined to think that there is much to be missed.

On the matter of reason I think that Harris' confidence is in dire need of some restraint. Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (the source of paradigm theory) and Michael Polanyi with his work on the role of intuition in the practical application of the scientific method have shown that the notion of evidence is not an uncomplicated one. To put it in Orthodox language, every reading of evidence is traditioned, as it were, there is no such thing as an interpretation of data which happens in an intellectual vacuum. To make determinations with regard to any data is to already have made intellectual or theoretical commitments. Harris seems to be espousing a popular version of logical positivism (see ), and what is interesting with regard to this is that it is now mostly popular writers such as Harris and Dawkins and Hitchens who hold to what appear to be versions of logical positivist views or versions of Karl Popper's scientific method (see ). Neither or these views continue to hold anything like the dominance in the academy that they each once did. Quine’s theory of confirmation holism (see ) has left Popperian and logical positivist confidence undone, at least in the minds of most intellectuals thinking about the questions of scientific evidence.

I am not one to make too much of the differences between modernity and so-called post-modernity/post-structuralism, but I do think it safe to say that only a small minority of philosophers or philosophers of science today would hold to anything akin to Harris' apparent confidence in the clear cut objectivity of interpretations of evidence. Most would be far more reserved with regard to their understanding of the confidence which any given set of data affords. In this sense, it is Harris who is the fundamentalist, for he apparently believes in a sort of "sola scriptura" with regard to data. It seems that for him, the data is its own interpreter, to paraphrase Luther. Well, most philosophers today, of most stripes, and even most scientists who write regarding such matters, would be far more circumspect concerning these matters. I am not one to be inclined to inform my intellectual convictions on the basis of what most philosophers believe, but given that in the above post Harris is quoted as saying that "clearly, there is sanity in numbers" one might wonder why he has bet on an intellectual horse that went out of fashion more than a generation ago. There are serious philosophical objections to Christianity, but in these posts and in other reviews of Harris' work I do not find record of Harris presenting a serious objection vis-à-vis evidential lines. To present such an argument, one would have to attack a Christianity based on something akin to Josh McDowell's Evidence That Demands a Verdict (those of you who are former Evangelicals will know that work), showing how that presentation of the evidence is incorrect and misleading, or, one would have to attack a Christian apologetic which argues that the general evidence to be found is such that should be interpreted as against Christian belief, though maintaining that we should believe in Christianity anyway (as I am told that a couple of Emergent Church folks hold), showing that such a position denigrates the meaning of the word evidence, or one would have to provide evidential proofs of God’s non-existence or deistic distance from man, a difficult proposition considering that the vast majority of scientists today who speak on the matter state that science is unable to prove or disprove God, or, loosely speaking, one would have to present a philosophical argument against Christianity or theism which presents some sort of obvious logical fallacy concerning an evidential problem in one of the terms used, which would inevitably involve a straw man as very few Christian theologians in the last 2000 years have defended or even presented Christianity using a syllogism which involves evidence based terms. All this is to say that to dismiss a given line of thought logically, one must dismiss that line of thought’s appropriation of data given the theory of data that line of thought exercises.

This brings us to the heart of Harris’ problems with regard to human reason. G.E.M. Anscombe (held by many to be the greatest female philosopher of the 20th century, also the wife of Peter Geach and in whose home Wittgenstein lived and died, both Geach and Wittgenstein being Karl Popper’s intellectual antagonists) won a famous debate against C.S. Lewis in which she took Lewis to task for his argument in the original text of the third chapter of Miracles wherein Lewis stated that eastern religions were incoherent and proceeded to argue this on application of western Christian metaphysical “data” to eastern religious thought. Anscombe reminded Lewis that for a given proposition or syllogism to be properly considered illogical or incoherent it must contradict itself in some fashion, according to its own terms. Any line of thought which fully “coheres” to a received theory in which all terms are consistent with one another is a logical line of thought. Thus something can be logical and yet at the same time false because incorrect terms can be construed in a logically consistent manner. Hence in law and in medicine one finds all sorts of logical, plausible arguments or diagnoses which happen to be incorrect either because of false data or the false interpretation of data (data which is always read and interpreted within a given “tradition”). Anscombe reminded Lewis of this basic tenet of logic, and Lewis relented, acknowledging that his argument carried little real weight (he later changed the text of that chapter). If the anthologies of Harris quotes which I have read are representative, then it seems to me that Harris wishes to blend two distinct ideas – that of falsification, and that of incoherence. Coherence and logic are philosophical terms, and to prove incoherence or illogic one must show an inner contradiction in a given argument. Falsification is largely a scientific term (though Popper attempts to apply it to philosophy, an attempt which most philosophers think failed), and to show falsification one must simply show that the later data disproves a prior hypothesis. But given that data is only read within the framework of a given theory of data interpretation, there are, from a number of philosophical points of view, severe limits to which falsification can decidedly show a given idea to be false – it can only do so when there is no question with regard to the meaning of the terms.

All this is to say that whatever philosophical basis Harris provides for his views it is, at best, one among many, and one which is not the predominant view among those who have reflected seriously on the nature of human reason. Even among analytic philosophers today (following in the philosophical tradition of Bertrand Russell, see one finds a number who are theists, including Perry Robinson (see a young Eastern Orthodox philosopher who is one of the most serious English language apologists for Orthodox Christianity.

Many philosophers of science have commented on the fact that a given thing which we would use as data is never exactly the same within a context of scientific observation as it is outside of a context of scientific observation. When dealing with atomic and nanotechnologies many believe we have come close to proving this, as the smallest bits of matter seem to “behave” differently in controlled settings than they do in uncontrolled settings. This has led any number of thinkers to reflect on the fact that the manner in which we structure the technique of our observation of data actually has influence on the material of the data in question. This has led no small number of thinkers to flirt with or embrace the notion that in the practices of modern science we create the terms which we later “verify” or at least manipulate them to no small degree.

But, many protest, the proof is in the pudding. Science gives us concrete material results, unlike, so we are told, religion. Scientific theories of light brought us the internet. Theories in physics brought us nuclear power. Biochemical theories brought us the drugs which allow asthmatic ochlophobists to breath again. Here we must make the distinction between truth and function. Most of scientific research is geared towards what works. This may be fine to an extent, but we must be careful how far we take this notion. Simply because my given theory of light has worked when applied mechanically to the creation of the internet does not mean that I then must understand light correctly. To be able to manipulate a given thing is not the same as to truly know a thing. In fact, one can think of any number of instances in human life in which our capabilities with regard to the manipulation of a given object correspond conversely to our real understanding of that object. In fact, in the history of science a proficient use of a given thing often comes long before a comprehensive understanding of that thing. Often enough, when we come to what is deemed to be a more comprehensive view of the thing, the prior useful function is deemed flawed. Lobotomies were functional, in a certain respect, as were the x-ray machines that used to be in shoe stores, as was and is DDT, as are nuclear weapons.

When one considers that our confidence in modern science is based on its utilitarian deliveries, and especially when one considers that many of those deliveries have been shown to be disastrous for individual persons and for societies, one is then not so impressed with Harris’ rejection of religion on the basis that it provides unnecessary psychological or ideological utility to those who naively embrace it. In your outline of Harris’ chapters 2-4 it is clear that he has a problem with how religion functions (particularly religious which espouse theism). One notes the almost immediate relation he seems to see between the malfunction of religion and its incoherence. This reeks of the bias of scientism, in which there is no real reason but only utility. For Harris, it seems, the most coherent position is the one which provides the most optimal function (and I suppose it will be Harris and his friends who determine the best function of persons and things). He has written elsewhere (see of his support of the human genome project and transhumanism (see, revealing his taste for the aggressive pursuit of the improvement of human function.

In my opinion, Orthodoxy provides a witness against transhumanist utilitarianism, and this witness, like Harris, does not make use of the methods of human reason. That witness is the holy fool. Harris wants a new humanity created in the image of his socio-political ecstatic ideals. His ideal man before the coming utopia only hindered by religious fanatics is the secularist-activist. The holy fool does not throw feces at the Tsar in order to accomplish any social, political, or religious agenda. It is instead an iconic act. The holy fool does not embrace a new re-created “perfected” techno-humanity but instead seeks discomfort, weakness, frailty, and loss. The holy fool does not cry out on behalf of the poor as an elitist, well paid public intellectual but instead cries out on behalf of the poor as someone who has himself or herself voluntarily become poor or remained poor. Harris wants to save humanity from humanity, the holy fool wants to save himself from himself for the sake of the cosmos which suffers because of his own sin. But these comparisons beg the fundamental questions: what does it mean to be human? What will save a human person? What will save the world? It seems that all Harris can muster is a rant against Christian answers to those questions based on a philosophically parochial, academically outdated understanding of human reason.

Sverige said...

I feel that this is one colossal, successful step towards TRUE freedom of religion. No longer will prejudice Christians or Cahtolics or Muslims and so forth restrain us from believing in what children are taught as blind, foolish beings who accept anything and grow under those influences. As Sam Harris says, 'Religions we consider sacred today are only sacred beacuse they were sacred yesterday.' What he means by this is that the only reason why religion is actually believeable in this modern world of ours is because day after day, generation after generation, one person's beliefs were passed down since the roots of humanity and religion.