End of Faith
W.W. Norton & Company, 348 pages, $13.95
It’s rare to find people so passionate about a book that they’ll
buy half a dozen copies to give to friends. And it’s rare
to see a shouting match over a book that deals primarily with
the quality of religious faith. Recently I’ve seen both. The
2005 PEN Award for Nonfiction went to Sam Harris’ book The
End of Faith. After weeks on The New York Times
best-seller list, the book has been reissued in paperback,
and its readership continues to grow. And so do the arguments
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.” That’s Sam Harris. And that’s
a good example of his thinking, his crisp writing style and
his brassy, in-your-face attitude.
Religious tolerance is bad, he says, because it means tolerating
dangerous ideas. Harris points out that religious beliefs,
beliefs about God and the afterlife, are unlike other beliefs.
They are untestable, neither provable nor disprovable. They
are matters of faith. Furthermore, he says, many of these
religious beliefs are demonstrably dangerous because when
put into action they cause violence and war, and they now
threaten to end life on this planet.
central tenet of every religious tradition is that all others
are mere repositories of error or, at best, dangerously incomplete.”
And once people believe—really, truly and completely
believe—that certain ideas can lead to eternal happiness,
they cannot tolerate the possibility that people they love
might be led astray by the blandishments of unbelievers. In
the end, true believers must oppose, root out and get rid
of the unbelievers.
In this country we have a lot of not-really-true believers.
“Moderates,” we call them. In fact, “criticizing a person’s
faith is currently taboo in every corner of our culture.”
So when a Muslim “obliterates himself along with a score of
innocents on a Jerusalem street, the role that faith played
in his actions is invariably discounted. His motives must
have been political, economic, or entirely personal.” The
idea that Muslim extremists have hijacked Islam is wrong,
says Harris. Those so-called Muslim extremists are, in fact,
simply true believers of the Koran. The so-called religious
moderates, whether Christian or Muslim, who tolerate the true
believers of any sect, are enabling those true believers to
destroy civilized society.
Harris stakes out his position with commendably clear and
lively writing. True, the opening chapters are somewhat disorganized,
but the disorganization comes across as excitement. We feel
the author’s presence on the page; he’s an enthusiastic and
passionate man. He’s clearly in the grip of his big idea;
he loves to talk and his excitement is infectious. Readers
have been swept along, millions of them.
A churlish critic, even one who delights in an ebullient prose
style, might grow weary of seeing the same ideas repeated
across 150 pages and ask just where this book is heading.
The End of Faith proclaims the silliness of religious
faith, the dangerousness of true believers, and the necessity
to get rid of Islam before it gets rid of us. But having read
those propositions several times, a reader may get impatient
and begin to ask questions: If religious tolerance is driving
us toward the abyss, what should we do? Is religious intolerance
the answer? And if religions are foolish wastes of time, what
should we do about that “sacred dimension to our existence,”
coming to terms with which, Harris posits, “could well be
the highest purpose of human life.”
Harris’ book begins to falter just when the reader begins
to ask for answers. The writing goes down a number of blind
alleys, many of which are further elaborated in notes gathered
at the back of the book—63 pages of them. Harris himself appears
as baffled as the reader about where the book is going; his
writing loses its bright effrontery. At the end, and rather
abruptly, he does find an answer, sort of, to the problems
he’s raised. Harris’s solution is in the wisdom of the East,
more specifically in something very like Buddhist mediation.
“Mysticism is a rational enterprise. Religion is not.” Some
readers will find that not only surprising, but disappointing
Anyone up on the news will agree that we may be zigzagging
toward the abyss. But—let me confess this—I doubt that religious
tolerance is “one of the principal forces driving us” there.
On the contrary, I suspect that religious tolerance is precisely
what’s needed. Harris believes that certain ideas lead to
terrible actions—violence, slaughter and war—and that therefore
we shouldn’t tolerate those ideas. But people aren’t torn
to shreds by unprovable concepts, they’re shredded by bombs.
In a reasonable society—the kind of society Harris says he
wants—we police what people actually do and not what they
A comedian seeking to mock religious faith has a lot to work
with, and Harris makes the most of his material. Here he is
on the Eucharist: “Jesus Christ—who, as it turns out, was
born of a virgin, cheated death, and rose bodily into the
heavens—can now be eaten the form of a cracker.” The author
spends almost as much time ridiculing Catholic dogmas as he
does the doctrines of Islam. Protestantism also gets knocked,
but not as frequently, which is odd considering the role that
right-wing Protestantism plays in our politics today. And
if there were opportunities to make fun of Judaism, Harris
missed them. No matter. There’s something here to offend,
infuriate, and—most importantly—engage just about everyone.