The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason

Sam Harris


Imagine there’s a heaven. Imagine there’s a hell. Imagine that after you die, an infinitely powerful God will send you to one or the other forever, according to what you believed or what you did during this life. If you don’t need to imagine these things–if you believe them and take them seriously–Sam Harris thinks you’re a menace to humanity. He thinks absolute beliefs of this kind, held without regard for factual evidence, can justify anything, even flying an airplane into a skyscraper. After all, what could be more important than eternal salvation?

In The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, Harris argues that the men who committed the atrocities of September 11 were neither cowards nor lunatics in the ordinary sense. “They were men of faith–perfect faith, as it turns out–and this, it must finally be acknowledged, is a terrible thing to be.”

Harris, who holds a philosophy degree from Stanford and is completing a doctorate in neuroscience, divides religion into three parts: faith, ethics, and mystical experiences. In his view only the faith part is dangerous; he thinks ethics and mysticism can get along fine without it. “There is clearly a sacred dimension to our experience,” writes this unconventional unbeliever, “and coming to terms with it could well be the highest purpose of human life. But we will find that it requires no faith in untestable propositions–Jesus was born of a virgin; the Koran is the word of God–for us to do this.”

Of course “faith” is ambiguous. It can refer to one’s way of believing or to the beliefs one holds. Harris happily debunks specific tenets of faith, but it’s how they’re held that makes his neck hairs stand up: “To presume knowledge where one has only pious hope is a species of evil.” His arguments have been around for centuries–something he doesn’t mention, for reasons not apparent at first.

In 1799 the French astronomer-mathematician Pierre-Simon Laplace published his work showing how the planets in our solar system remain in their orbits without falling into chaos. (Even Isaac Newton thought the factors determining planets’ paths were so complicated they required divine supervision.) Napoleon is said to have asked Laplace why his book contained many mathematical equations but didn’t mention God; Laplace is said to have replied, “I have no need of that hypothesis.”

Two centuries later we have even less need. We understand how wonderfully complex living things developed through natural selection and other evolutionary processes, not by supernatural intervention. That people have imperfections–our bodies have appendixes and occasionally grow more teeth than the human jaw can accommodate–looks more like the work of a rough-and-ready process such as natural selection than of an omniscient designing mind. We’re close to understanding why some people get cancer while others don’t, without having to invoke God’s will. Half a millennium of scientific advances have shredded one tenet of faith after another–and confirmed none.

The basic tools of science–see for yourself when possible, be open to new evidence, and when necessary rely on authorities who do the same–apply in all spheres of life, whether you need to know how to dig a hole or how to cope with the death of the person going into it. It may be true, for instance, that hospital patients get better after praying, or meditating under a Zen master, or viewing old episodes of Baywatch. Such possibilities can and should be investigated just as conventional medicines are. If confirmed, they should be incorporated into good medical practice and daily living; if not, there’s no particular respect due to those who cling to them anyway, no more than to those who consult their horoscopes daily.

Unless you make a habit of attending fundamentalist services or reading history, it’s easy to forget the atrocities perpetrated under the authority of scriptures and church fathers. Harris offers a few reminders. Saint Augustine, for example, viewed the Jews’ suffering and dispersal as God’s way of showing the truth of Christianity, and he endorsed the torture of suspected heretics. Eight hundred years later, in 1215, the Catholic church proclaimed the doctrine of transubstantiation, according to which the communion wafer is not merely symbolic of Jesus’s flesh, but actually becomes it when consecrated. This became a pretext for pogroms, writes Harris: “Could there be any doubt that the Jews would seek to harm the Son of God again, knowing that his body was now readily accessible in the form of defenseless crackers? Historical accounts suggest that as many as three thousand Jews were murdered in response to a single allegation of this imaginary crime.” He would add both 9/11 and conservative zealots’ opposition to condoms, sex education, and stem-cell research to this dishonor roll.

Faith can harm the faithful as well as their victims. One example Harris doesn’t cite is King Philip’s War. In 1675 the ardently Bible-believing New England Puritans found themselves in a war for survival against an Indian confederation, and the Massachusetts colonial legislature proclaimed, “The Righteous God hath heightned our Calamity and given Commission to the Barbarous Heathen to rise up against us, and to become a smart Rod, and severe Scourge to us.” Their faith made it hard for the Puritans to prosecute the war intelligently. They couldn’t see the Indians as human adversaries with interests and strategies of their own; God had simply chosen them to chastise the Puritans for the Puritans’ sins. This was also how they understood the weather, economic cycles, and outbreaks of disease.

No reasonable religious person today thinks this way, and for that we can give thanks–but not to their faith. “The doors leading out of scriptural literalism do not open from the inside,” writes Harris. “The moderation we see among nonfundamentalists is not some sign that faith itself has evolved; it is, rather, the product of the many hammer blows of modernity”–meaning evidence-based knowledge from fields ranging from anthropology to astronomy. Moderate Christians have accommodated themselves to secular knowledge, diluting the Bible’s claim to authority without discarding it. Fundamentalists assert the Bible’s complete authority, but they cherry-pick it too. Jesus condemned divorce and said nothing about abortion or gay sex, but we know all too well which subjects obsess them.

The Bible is a book of absolutes, leavened by few if any doses of moderation. (Don’t even get Harris started on the Koran.) It has little to say about recent innovations such as political freedom, democracy, the middle class, scientific knowledge of anything, or the value of allowing people to hold mistaken opinions. The famous King James Bible phrase “Come now, and let us reason together” (Isaiah 1:18) has nothing to do with sitting around a table and striking a compromise. God speaks these words only as a prelude to commanding total obedience. In Revelation 3:16-17, an angel admonishes the church in Laodicea for its complacency and moderation: “Because you are lukewarm, neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.” If this cocksure, bullying, black-and-white worldview reminds you of George W. Bush, you can see why Harris is so worried.

Harris’s arguments against faith strike me personally as compelling. But most folks apparently don’t agree. Harris quotes philosopher-polemicist Bertrand Russell, who made the same points more eloquently 80 years ago, yet he never faces the fact that their position has lost ground over the last century. He fails to ask, let alone answer, the question that every unsuccessful reformer must: if I’m so right, why isn’t everybody following me?

Many decades ago it looked like secularism might catch on. Brilliant secularists such as Robert Ingersoll and H.L. Mencken were players on the public stage, not marginal figures of fun. Church leaders often spoke reasonably: Herbert Willett, a leader of the Disciples of Christ denomination at the University of Chicago, said around 1905, “We believe in Jesus today rather in spite of the miracles than because of them.”

Similar ideas were stirring at the grass roots too. My great-grandfather-in-law Addison Boren–son of a construction worker, ardent athlete, and self-taught CPA–regularly attended Pittsburgh’s Park Avenue Presbyterian Church with his wife Bertha and their three children. Sometime around 1900 he read a book or two about the work of Darwin and other scientists and left them in plain sight on the living-room table. Their minister spotted them during a home visit and was horrified. His objections and prayers reduced Bertha to tears. During church the following Sunday, he prayed publicly that the Borens would avoid such reading matter.

Afterward, Boren told the minister it was unfair to criticize a person in public when he couldn’t answer back, and asked him not to do so again. Perhaps believing that unfairness was a small price to pay for salvation, the minister repeated his prayer the next Sunday. In midprayer the family stood up and walked down the aisle and out of the sanctuary, never to return. They eventually became Unitarians.

This is how things were supposed to happen: as people became more prosperous and better educated, they would shed blind faith for open-minded inquiry, while retaining a bedrock morality. It hasn’t happened. Seemingly forward-looking people like Willett and Boren weren’t stepping into a new mainstream. For just this reason, religious historian Martin Marty of the University of Chicago titled the first volume of his series on modern American religion The Irony of It All, 1893-1919. Similar dispiriting conclusions can be drawn from the fact that the 9/11 terrorists were neither ill educated nor poverty-stricken. (Believers who see God at work in the 20th-century resurgence of religion are obligated to explain the moral character of a deity who saw fit to discourage secularism and not Hitler.)

Harris is strangely oblivious to this history. He frequently refers to Islamic terrorists as 14th-century bigots with 21st-century weapons–betraying his blinkered belief that people (or cultures) naturally grow over time from faith-based ignorance and fanaticism to evidence-based reasonableness. If that perception were correct, the chronology of the last century would be reversed: on September 11, 1901, religious fanatics would have dramatized their grievances by hijacking trains and running them head-on into one another in crowded railway stations, and in 2001 Boren’s great-great-grandchildren would be walking out of the handful of remaining fundamentalist churches and swelling the crowds attending Unitarian churches, Ethical Culture Society meetings, and Great Books discussion groups.

If secularism is critical to our survival, we need to understand why it has lost so much ground. Harris’s eloquence on its behalf only deepens the mystery.

Harris’s obliviousness to recent history isn’t his only problem. His notion that all faith is lethal won’t make a lot of sense to readers either. Fundamentalists may be gaining ground, but most people who attend church, synagogue, temple, or mosque are still moderates. Many of them give to the needy and comfort the afflicted. A few even afflict the comfortable. They don’t countenance torturing those who think God and Jesus are different entities, stigmatizing children born out of wedlock, or flying airplanes into office towers.

Some churchgoers may think that Noah’s flood created the Grand Canyon, but they have the good taste not to bring it up in polite conversation. By any reasonable standard, they’re not bad people, and many are among the best. Harris cuts them no slack at all. He says, in effect, that moderates don’t understand their own religion. They struggle to make sacred scriptures seem more civilized than they are, a struggle he thinks is doomed on the merits.

Meanwhile their struggle does more harm than good, because it gives fundamentalists a credibility they don’t deserve. “Moderates do not want to kill anyone in the name of God, but they want us to keep using the word ‘God’ as though we knew what we were talking about. And they do not want anything too critical said about people who really believe in the God of their fathers, because tolerance, perhaps above all else, is sacred. To speak plainly and truthfully about the state of our world–to say, for instance, that the Bible and the Koran both contain mountains of life-destroying gibberish–is antithetical to tolerance as moderates currently conceive it.”

It’s fun to pick on moderates, for pretty much the same reason that Naderites picked on moderate John Kerry rather than his opponent. But is it good strategy?

Turning fundamentalists into reasonable people isn’t the work of a day. Moderates probably do lend them some credibility, but moderates also offer refugees from fundamentalism a face-saving halfway house where they can recover. Which role is more significant? Harris offers no evidence–perhaps because, like progressives of a century ago, he finds it painful to think that false beliefs might sometimes do more good than true ones.

Because the tenets of faith make so little intellectual sense, Harris assumes that their fruits over the course of history have been more bad than good. This too is by no means obvious. Just how would you weigh every victim of inquisitions, crusades, and jihads against every widow and orphan fed and comforted, every work of art, music, and literature created? For starters, there are no good control cases; the two large compulsorily secular societies in history were based on a murderous faith in Marxism.

Finally, Harris would like to break the long-standing ties that ethics and mysticism have to faith. Since many people believe that morals come from God and that mysticism consists of experiencing God, he has his hands full.

It should be clear that adding “God said so” to moral maxims adds nothing to our understanding of how ethical positions grow and develop, any more than positing a gigantic turtle holding up the earth helps us understand cosmology. But that doesn’t mean the issues are as simple as Harris sometimes seems to think. “Questions of right and wrong are really questions about the happiness and suffering of sentient creatures,” he says, concluding that advances in neurological science will show us the best ways to bring about happiness.

This crude approximation of utilitarianism can’t make sense of our ideas of right and wrong. But we don’t need to go into philosophy here, because Harris contradicts himself. When he makes the case that American actions in the Iraqi and Afghan wars were justified, even though they did sometimes kill and injure civilians, he uses an ethical theory that has nothing to do with happiness and suffering. Unlike the terrorists or Saddamites we oppose, he says, we don’t intend to kill innocent people–and “where ethics are concerned, intentions are everything.” Obviously he can’t have it both ways. Serious thought about ethics might well start by admitting that both intentions and happiness play some part.

Harris has a little more success with mystical experiences, wisely distancing himself from the dogmatic “skeptics” who shy away from anything they can’t touch. These experiences are real, he writes, and converge on the experience of no longer being aware of oneself or of any barrier between oneself and the rest of the world. He quotes and praises Buddhist texts that avoid theology and describe these altered states of consciousness and how to achieve them.

But if these experiences are evidence, how does Harris know what they’re evidence of? Human beings don’t have pure experiences–they interpret their experiences based on the traditions they know. Lifelong Buddhists don’t have visions of the Virgin Mary. Lifelong Christians may well have the same experience as the Buddhists, but they think they’re seeing Jesus or long-dead relatives. Perhaps Harris’s chosen discipline of neuroscience will make it easier to sort out the experience from the interpretation.

So how will billions of people be disabused of their faith in time to avoid a plague of dirty bombs? Harris’s answer, when it comes, is embarrassingly weak: the members of the chattering classes should stop respecting beliefs just because they’re religious. “The appropriate response to the bin Ladens of the world is to correct everyone’s reading of these texts by making the same evidentiary demands in religious matters that we make in all others,” he writes. “It is time we recognized that the only thing that permits human beings to collaborate with one another in a truly open-ended way is their willingness to have their beliefs modified by new facts. . . . This spirit of mutual inquiry is the very antithesis of religious faith.”

It’s pleasant to imagine a Sunday-morning TV pundit pointing out, say, that any real estate broker who deeded the same property to three different buyers, as God appears to have done in the Middle East, would be drummed out of the profession and jailed. But would it help matters any? Fundamentalists enjoy being persecuted; ignoring them might be better, if it were possible. The European experience suggests that one might well create religious indifference by establishing a state church, but that doesn’t always work either.

Harris has rung the right alarm bell even if he doesn’t know how to put out the fire. It’s not atheists but faith-based fanatics who are flying airplanes into buildings and blowing themselves up. Beliefs about Armageddon seem to have influenced the Reagan and Bush II administrations’ Middle East policies; beliefs about the afterlife and God as the source of government appear to affect the thinking of at least one current Supreme Court justice, Antonin Scalia. Nazism and communism, the plagues of the 20th century, have with much pain and trouble been undone, but faith-based terrorism is stronger than ever. It’s a mystery.

Or perhaps not. Consider the spectacle of Bush and bin Laden wallowing in the rhetoric of absolute faith, cynically using the fear of the other to maintain a following, blinded by faith from understanding themselves or each other–at a time when compassion and openness to factual evidence offer us a better future than ever before. Harris is too earnest to say so, but it must have occurred to him that this spectacle might be a sign that some malign deity has decided to erase this planet-size painting and start another.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Tomasz Walenta.