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Dear God
By Gene Mirabelli

The End of Faith

By Sam Harris

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 over it.

“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.” 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.

“The 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 and useless.

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 believe.

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.

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