Book review: The end of faith

This weekend I finished The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, by Sam Harris. Most of the book is about the dangers that uncritical faith in religion poses to the world today, the harm it has wrought so far, and the folly of letting irrational beliefs determine our social and political lives. Several years ago I heard David Sloan Wilson speak; his book, Darwin’s Cathedral, examines the idea that religion can be explained in evolutionary terms as an adaptation at the group rather than the individual level. Although he makes some good points, the idea of group selection is still problematic in general, and in this particular case Wilson’s analysis misses one of the most striking things about religion (to me, anyway): he focuses on the benefits a social group can gain through religion, but doesn’t address the intergroup conflicts, violence, and misery that religion causes. Harris’s book is an excellent counterweight to Wilson’s. He catalogs the often murderous cruelty that humans have perpetrated in the name of irrational and often ludicrous beliefs. Harris describes the way people have been willing to ruin or end other people’s lives over matters of faith, from the Inquisition to suicide bombers to aid programs to Africa that emphasize abstinence over condoms in fighting AIDS. He oversimplifies sometimes to drive home his point about the dangers of religious irrationality, but i agree with his claims that it’s ridiculous and wrong to hurt or kill people here and now because of ideas about what God wants.

Most of the book consists of a vigorous debunking of religious beliefs. In the last chapter or two, Harris talks about how we can face death and learn how best to live without resorting to unfounded beliefs. He does not place much reliance on an understanding of the evolutionary roots of our religious, or any other, behavior; what is adaptive or “natural” isn’t necessarily ethical or productive of happiness right now. Rather, he describes spirituality as an effort to learn, rationally and empirically, how to “change our relationship to the contents of consciousness, and thereby … transform our experience of the world.” Every time I’ve been intrigued by any type of spiritual teaching that seems to contain a glimmer of this sort of transformation, sans mumbo-jumbo, I’ve usually been turned back sooner or later because of some requirement that I swallow something incredible, at which I always balk. So I enjoyed reading things like this:

Mysticism, to be viable, requires explicit instructions, which need suffer no more ambiguity or artifice in their exposition than we find in a manual for operating a lawn mower. Some traditions realized this millennia ago. Others did not.

“Meditation”, in the sense that I use it here, refers to any means whereby our sense of “self”–of subject/object dualism in perception and cognition–can be made to vanish, while consciousness remains vividly aware of the continuum of experience.

The roiling mystery of the world can be analyzed with concepts (this is science), or it can be experienced free of concepts (this is mysticism). Religion is nothing more than bad concepts held in place of good ones for all time. It is the denial–at once full of hope and full of fear–of the vastitude of human ignorance.

I disagreed with some of what Harris said throughout the book, and in isolation this is certainly not the single best book to read about what religion means to our species. but it provides an interesting perspective and, in the last chapters particularly, I found much to interest me. I wish I’d photocopied the extensive bibliography before taking the book back to the library. There’s a web site, http://www.samharris.org/ with a little info about the author and some forums. Harris has a degree in philosophy from Stanford and is working on a doctorate in neuroscience; I hope he writes more about the intersection of consciousness and spirituality.