2006-11-21

The end of faith: religion, terror, and the future of reason / Sam Harris. (Norton, 2005) Review

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by Neil Godfrey

This is a disturbing book principally for its ignorant tirade against Muslims. As an atheist myself I had hoped for something more rational and informative given the enormous popularity of this book in the U.S. but find Harris here is too often little more than a mega-mouthpiece for Western (read American?) ignorance of Muslims and the Muslim world outside the U.S. borders. I expected to read along with a like-mind since I also see religion and religious faith as a net negative left-over from our evolutionary past that needs to be eradicated just as acceptance of rape as a natural means for reproduction has been eradicated. But I found points of agreement only at a superficial level. It is bad enough that he blames religion as the principle or fundamental root cause of suicide terrorism: he says it was religious belief, belief in a blissful life after death, that enabled the 9/11 hijackers to commit their atrocity. What rot. A slight amount of reflection and simple logic would inform him that if religious belief were the root enabler of suicide terrorism then we would surely have had suicide terrorism for as long as we have had such beliefs in any religion. Pape’s “Dying to Win” is a scholarly research work that amply demonstrates that suicide terrorism is a function of national identity humiliation brought about by foreign occupation and that perpetrators of this form of terrorism since the 1980’s have included both the religious and non-religious and secular, Christian and Buddhist as well as Muslim. Pape’s research pulverizes Harris’s ignorant diatribe.

Harris also makes the tired old moral comparison between “collatoral damage” and “wilful terrorist acts” meant to sanitize western belligerent responses to 9/11, and in so doing becomes a supporter of the very actions that are dooming us to more war and increasing terror. Again deeper reflection would enlighten one to a more accurate comparison that brought the two much closer together than Harris wants to admit: imagine a police officer opting to open massive firepower into a house where murderers are suspected of hiding knowing that that firepower would also inevitably wipe out several other houses sheltering innocent families that (unfortunately!) happened to be in the general path of fire! The balance is thus not that the terrorist wants to kill civilians while “we” regrettably unavoidably kill civilians; it is, rather, that the terrorist wants to kill civilians while “we” don’t care if we kill civilians. (Disagree? Then why do “we” say “we don’t do body counts” if we really do care and truly regret?)

But the book is more disturbing than this because it would appear to me to be fanning ignorant prejudice and inhumane policies against Muslim peoples that can only guarantee a deepening of the problem he thinks will be solved by the eradication of religious belief, especially Muslim belief. He writes point-blank on page 133 that if Muslim societies prospered they would more than likely threaten and harm “us” even more and therefore the best thing for “us” is that those societies stay undeveloped! He writes that millions of Muslims (suggesting the majority) want to set up a Taliban-like society over “us”. He equates Hammas with a terrorist outfit pure and simple. The only hope in the book to balance such ignorance is his pleading for a rationality that is open to new evidence (p.235). One can only hope that Harris is open-minded enough to seek out and embrace evidence that will surely to be new to him — evidence about the truth of the majority of Muslim and Hammas that is freely available in western societies like his to any who care to seriously inform themselves.

Book details: The end of faith: religion, terror, and the future of reason / Sam Harris. (Norton, 2005)

Neil Godfrey


Technorati Tags:
islam, christianity, faith, religion, belief, intolerance, terrorism, atheism

9 Comments

  • 2006-12-03 12:41:19 UTC - 12:41 | Permalink

    Hi Neil,

    I want to better understand the relationship between ‘religious belief’ as a cause of suicide terrorism and ‘national identity humiliation.’ At the moment I view these as interrelated. You write:

    “It is bad enough that he blames religion as the principle or fundamental root cause of suicide terrorism: he says it was religious belief, belief in a blissful life after death, that enabled the 9/11 hijackers to commit their atrocity.”

    “Pape’s “Dying to Win” is a scholarly research work that amply demonstrates that suicide terrorism is a function of national identity humiliation brought about by foreign occupation and that perpetrators of this form of terrorism since the 1980’s have included both the religious and non-religious and secular, Christian and Buddhist as well as Muslim.”

    US policies have offended and humiliated ‘both the religious and non-religious.’ So true. But, taking 9/11 as an example, do you think that specific individuals who commited suicide on 9/11 were dying for their countries willingly because they believed in a better afterlife?

    I’m having a difficult time thinking this through and so I’ll wait to see what you say about this so far.

    Best,
    Clarice O’Callaghan

  • 2006-12-03 21:47:03 UTC - 21:47 | Permalink

    P.S. One only has to see that suicide terrorism does work as to see why it continues and grows and is picked up by Muslim and non-Muslim alike as long as some groups of people continue to abuse their power and humiliate and destroy the lives of others. As Richard Pape and others have observed, the pioneers of modern suicide terrorism, Hezbollah, showed that it really does work when it eventually forced the removal of Israeli forces and their allies from Lebanon in the 1980’s.

    Neil

  • 2006-12-03 21:29:12 UTC - 21:29 | Permalink

    Hi Carice,

    I will have to discuss this more fully possibly as late as next week (work commitments etc) — it’s a vital topic I think. It’s a truism that religious beliefs prompt evil as well as good, and I even think Richard Dawkins has a good point when he argues that there is far too much respect today for religious faith. (Check out the 26 November program here: http://www.abc.net.au/rn/backgroundbriefing/.

    But the more I get to know personally Palestinians and Iraqis and Afghans and Iranians, both secular and moslem, (we have a fantastic activist network here and I work at probably one of the most internationally outreached universities in Australia) the more clear it is in my mind at least we would behave no differently under the daily humiliation and torment that many of these people face daily — regardless of religion.

    I can’t help but think that much of the confusion in the general community arises from political and media propaganda, and a cultural tradition of “Orientalism” (c.f. Edward Said’s classic book).

    Of course if a person is to act in a way that is normally seen in some way contrary to the tenets of his faith, then that person is going to have to work harder at promoting the religious rationalization for their act. And of course they will express their actions in religious terms at least as much as any other. I have little doubt that if the Australian aborigines or American Indians (or even people under the Roman imperial rule) had available the same explosives and other technologies as we know today some of their renowned suicide raids on whites would have been in the form of “suicide terrorism” — and the whites (or Romans) would have blamed the phenomenon even back then as much on their primitive religious beliefs (no doubt many would have spoken loudly of going to their gods) as on their barbarism. Few would have seen the problem in terms of white dehumanization and colonial oppression prompting inhuman retribution. And once someone did it once the “meme” would very likely have caught on and reproduced in the minds of many more.

    The originators of modern suicide bombings, the Hezbollah, count among their martyrs the non-religious and secular as well as the devout. Many Palestinian moslem parents feel those in the Hamas wing responsible for recruiting suicide bombers are just using their kids and hate what they do in that respect, and it appears that many of those parents are more devout than those particular Hamas leaders who come across to them as more cynical despite their talk of religion.

    But what turns so many people to behave so inhumanely and cynically? Why do they have such a ready pool of like-minded recruits? Another book I’ve discussed elsewhere helps answer that too: http://sweetreason.wordpress.com/2006/11/21/against-paranoid-nationalism-searching-for-hope-in-a-shrinking-society-ghassan-hage-pluto-press-2003-review/

    But I began by saying I would not discuss this now (and have got carried away instead) — and i really must dash now…. Will have to get more in depth reviews of other books we’ve read on this up online too.

    Cheers,
    Neil

  • 2006-12-05 13:57:45 UTC - 13:57 | Permalink

    Thanks, Neil. I’ll be pondering this from sweetreason:

    “As for the suicide terrorism bit, it enabled me to see how personal despair, humiliation, hopelessness, — and end of real life on an individual level — is so unbearable that some prefer to swap their physical existence for a symbolic existence.”

    Best,
    Clarice

  • 2006-12-05 22:38:51 UTC - 22:38 | Permalink

    Someone alerted me to an error in my review of “Paranoid Nationalism”. I orignally wrote the author was a Muslim. I have since confirmed with the author that he is not a Muslim, but comfortable with being described simply as an Australian Lebanese academic.

  • 2006-12-15 12:43:15 UTC - 12:43 | Permalink

    Neil, do you think there’s a difference between people going to war in god’s name and Christians shooting up abortion clinics in god’s name? Is the root motivation for these ‘in god’s name’ or something else? I don’t know if suicide terrorists can be compared here.

    Best,
    Clarice

  • 2006-12-16 05:35:32 UTC - 05:35 | Permalink

    I personally think our motives work at a far deeper level than what we say they are. I still am trying to get my head around those well-known psychology experiments that establish that what people believe are their reasons they made a certain choice were completely fabricated after making the choice. Being able to rationalize a belief “in god’s name” helps us win support for our actions within our wider cultural group, helps us feel like what we are doing is sanctioned by our favorite social group, and that’s always a nice thing. Yes? Are all of those opposed to abortion believers? There is a study about this but I can’t recollect its details now. Will try to track it down.

    I think it might help to look at the question across a number of cultures, not just within the US which would have a bias towards samples belonging to ‘believer’ groups.

    But sometimes what we do say are our motives really does coincide with our real motives, thank god! 🙂

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