Overview of The End of Faith

Over at mindonfire.com, it’s author John Remy, inspiried by some of his regular readers, decided to band together and read a book relating to spiritual issues in our world today and talk about it, either on their own blogs, via comments on his, or meet together in person. I thought this was a great idea, and decided to read the chosen book and try posting some thoughts on it of my own on this site. The book that was eventually chosen was The End of Faith by Sam Harris.

The book was tough for me to read at first (as one of the regular visitors at MoF, Miko remarked). Harris is very acidic – he regularly uses insulting ways to describe people of faith and their beliefs, but like Miko also said, there must be something true here that needs to be heard or understood. I couldn’t agree more. I got so mad I had to put the book down for a while. I eventually skipped to the end to read his “solution” to faith, got a good laugh, felt a little better, and then proceeded to read the rest of the book.

Overall, I actually enjoyed the book, because it had some very thought-provoking sections, which might make people think “huh?” because I best define myself as a “moderate” Christian, which he attacks even more than fundamentalists. Anyway, if you’re interested, read on…

In this post, I would like to lay out the overview of the book, which will be an essential jumping-off point for my critique that I will write about later.

Intended Audience

First of all, the audience of the book is an atheist one. This is not a book intended to logically convince people of faith to give it up. It’s tone is overtly acidic towards believers of any faith except for eastern ones, which he appears to give only a disagreeable nod to. Insulting your readers will not win them over to your cause. He’s obviously not dumb, so we can make this assumption.

Argument Presuppositions

He has a couple presuppositions that should be listed up front here that will frame his argument later on, some of these points he argues, others he just assumes:

  • There is no god. He does not logically argue this point anywhere – it simply remains an untouchable presupposition.
  • He believes in absolute truth, both in a natural scientific sense and in an ethical sense. He does later argue this point, with great beauty in my opinion.
  • He believes that there is a spiritual side of humanity that needs to be addressed. (quite a shocker for me – i didn’t expect this)
  • He believes reason, logic, and empirical, repeatable evidence is what is needed to determine what is true and what is not. A man after my own heart!

Ok – this is quite interesting! It’s simply too bad that a darn good thinker with some good presuppositions couldn’t have been more objective and less acidic in his overall approach. A lot more intellectual people would probably resonate with him, not just his intended audience. (Ironically, they don’t resonate either – as mentioned in his afterward in a later print edition.)

Thesis

This book is an appeal to atheists like himself (and people sitting on the fence) to view people of faith, especially religious moderates, as a danger to society. Moderates are dangerous because they continue to value faith, although not in its more violent doctrines, but by not throwing it out altogether, they allow wiggle room for fundamentalists to exist in our society and to do what they do best – slake their violent appetite upon the innocent people of other faiths. To sum up: religious moderates are to blame for the existence of their brutish fundamentalist brothers, and through their inaction, religious violence and ignorance cannot be effectively opposed. (p.45).

Goal

The book’s goal appears to be a wake-up call for atheists and a rallying point to work together to influence their society in their individual spheres (p.48) for the distinct purpose of creating a common mindset where no person of faith will be considered for positions of influence (government, teaching, science, etc. (p.39)) or even be considered sane (p.48). Because of the overwhelming evidence that his supporting argument will show (that people of faith are naturally inclined to kill and are hopelessly illogical) he feels justified in verbally demeaning and insulting even moderate people of faith in his opening arguments (p.23), which he continues to do with great frequency throughout the rest of the supporting argument sections of the book. In an afterward in a later printed edition, Harris more gently states that he is not advocating a turn to dogmatic athiesm, but against dogmatism of any type, and instead to a belief system proved solely through reason alone. Note: Between his goal and his acidic attitude, let’s hope his supporting arguments are really convincing :).

Supporting Argument

Chapters 1, 3 and 4 constitute his supporting argument to his thesis. His main proof is in the actions of religious adherents. He goes into great detail about the gruesome things Christians did during the Spanish Inquisition and the early American witch trials, and their indirect influence on the Holocaust. He also talks in great detail about Muslim atrocities. As for the motivating reasons behind all these terrible things? In the case of Christianity, he points to one definite single cause – One 10-verse section in the Bible: Deut. 13:6-16. He debates that others are also the cause if read literally, rather than figuratively, which he assumes all fundamentals would naturally do although all intelligent moderates would not. The key point he makes in his supporting argument is that even if something obviously benign can be mis-read, it is still solely responsible for people’s bad behavior and must be thrown out as intellectually valid (p.83 at top) Chapter 5 discusses the current problems and future possible dangerous to our country if men and women of faith continue to be elected to public office.

Discussion on Morality & Belief

In chapters 2, 6 and the final concluding chapter 7, He leaves his argument, and discusses philosophically the complexities of ethics, the nature of belief, and a bold move (from an atheistic perspective) to prove that a spiritual nature in humans exits, and that the key to ethical behavior lies in acknowledging this and immersing oneself in it. Thankfully, these sections are for the most part acid-free, and therefore more fun to read and really make you think.

In my next post, I will begin a formal critique of his supporting argument as well as examine his pre-supposition that God does not exist. In an even later post, I will discuss in more detail and offer some critique his spiritual alternative to faith, which he believes will empirically justify absolute morality.

    2 Responses to “Overview of The End of Faith

    1. Miko
      1

      I found his arguments against moderates to be very interesting as they are the same arguments my father (decidedly not moderate about anything) uses against what I’ve heard him call both “quilt” and “salad bar” Catholics. That is, people who claim to be Catholic but pick and choose their beliefs, piecing them together like a quilt or, to use the other metaphor, choosing from a Sizzler-style smorgasbord only those bits that taste good to them, spiritually speaking. The bible speaks against this kind of believer, too: “”I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were cold or hot./So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will vomit you out of my mouth.” (Rev. 3:15-16). I find it very interesting that an atheist such as Mr. Harris so obviously is, would be so dogmatic.

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    2. Jonathan
      2
      Author Comment

      Miko — that’s a funny thought! He’s harder on Christian moderates than even Christian conservatives are – I was never thought of that badly by the conservative crowd. I guess I am a failed fundamentalist. Actually, your point makes me think of funny behavior towards Christians that is kind of related.

      I had a friend that rented out an apartment, and for a long time his tenants weren’t paying even though he constantly gave them breaks. When he finally demanded that they pay the rent or else he would have to evict them, they got all huffy and told him that wasn’t being “Christian.” It seems like non-Christians play the dogma card against Christians if its in their best interests.

      I’m no better. I’m sure I have my best interests in mind when I bash other religions by pointing out the flaws in their doctrines and think they are all extremists inside. If Harris has taught me anything, it is to be humble and not follow his example. If he can be so wrong about Christians, I could be very wrong about people who practice religions other than my own, Islam being a great example. This thought constantly hammered itself into me as I read his book. Funny how a book on how terrible Islam is prodded me to stop being so judgemental of the people who believe it.

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