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The End Of Faith
Free Press / Simon & Schuster hardcover £12.99
review by Debbie Moon
After a century or more in which faith was regarded as a private eccentricity that had little influence on world events, religion is suddenly centre stage again, driving or at least influencing terrorism, internal conflict, and international military intervention. Sam Harris is not surprised by this - for him, all faiths that insist they hold the only way to God are automatically predisposed to physical hostility towards other faiths. Anyone who truly believes in one of these religions is required by their own scriptures to take up arms against the infidel - and any liberal or moderate believer who claims otherwise is simply ignoring the truth of their own religion. Liberal tolerance is doomed in the face of religions that show no tolerance themselves. Therefore, the answer is the complete elimination of religion. Our spiritual side will instead be fed by a vaguely Buddhist spirituality that he devotes a chapter to extolling.
Harris makes some extremely interesting points, but he makes them in pursuit of a thesis every bit as flawed and fascistic as the religions he criticises. Without doubt, appalling atrocities have been committed, and continue to be committed, by those believing themselves justified by their religion. However, politics, nationalism, language, and differing social customs have led to just as many deaths - and Harris' attempt to evade the most obvious example by classifying Nazism as a religion simply won't wash. Shall we ban them? (Harris says yes, in effect, by saying that a world government is the only route to peace). In fact, considering the millions who must have died over the centuries due to sexual jealousy, shall we ban love as well?
He does concede, with sulky brevity, that religion has also inspired acts of great kindness and social justice - and seems unaware that he's just undermined his own argument. If Osama Bin Laden and George Bush 'prove' that religion should be eliminated, then wouldn't it be equally logical to claim that Martin Luther King and Mother Theresa 'prove' that religious belief should be made compulsory? His points about the wilful blindness of believers - Christian, Jewish, and Muslim - who quietly ignore injunctions to commit religious violence in their own scriptures, are thought-provoking, and his dissection of the weaknesses of western liberal tolerance and moral relativism are extremely timely. However, his facts are not always correct - I'm not aware of any Christian denomination that believes one person wrote the Bible in its entirety, as he alleges - and it's hard to find his alternative stance attractive. Should we really, as he suggests, counter intolerance with greater intolerance? Isn't it sometimes better to do the right thing than to win? (I guess I'm just a wishy-washy western liberal Christian, so what would I know..?)
Harris carefully avoids the issue of how you force the existing population to give up their religion, by concentrating on suggesting an atheistic upbringing for the next generation. Perhaps he realises that the logical conclusion of his argument, forced conversion to atheism, is simply too close to the forced conversions he wastes no time in vilifying historical missionaries for... But the shadow of compulsion, of Stalinist re-education, remains. And by the time Harris states that it may be necessary (morally appalling, he agrees, but nonetheless necessary) for the west to launch an all out pre-emptive nuclear strike on any Islamic country that obtains nuclear weapons, and wipeout their entire population before they, inevitably, bomb ours, you may begin to wonder what kind of right-wing lunatic you're reading.
Of course, this is an academic text, and an argument that's hard to stomach doesn't make it a bad book. The End Of Faith is a well-written, provocative and interesting view of one of the major issues facing us in the 21st century, and despite disagreeing with most of what's said in it, I'd heartily recommend it to anyone interested in getting a new angle on religion and world politics.
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