May 7, 2007

The End of Faith

Another week gone and another book finished. In keeping true to my word to try and write a quick blurb every time I finish a book, I am back again this week to jot down a few words about The End of Faith by Sam Harris. I found Harris’ name in Mindful Politics. He has written a great essay about how Buddhism is the main obstacle for Buddhist. He claims that the practice of Buddhism should outshine the religion itself. He actually claims, and I agree with him, that Buddhism is not a religion at all, but a way of life.

After finishing Mindful Politics, I wrote down his name and told myself I would buy a book that he has written the next time I was at the bookstore, which brings me to The End of Faith. This text offers a simple two-part thesis:

…(1) our religious traditions attest to a range of spiritual experiences that are real and significant and entirely worthy of our investigation, both personally and scientifically; (2) many of the beliefs that have grown up around these experiences now threaten to destroy us.

With his sometimes hilarious wit and acerbic sarcasm, Harris delivers a roller-coaster ride which will get you thinking no matter where you stand on the topic of faith. I emailed friends after reading the first sixty pages begging them to read this book, but then found myself angrily disagreeing with much of what Harris was claiming later on. (He takes a few jabs at liberalism- Chomsky and Roy in particular) But by the end of the book, I found most of what he said to be very thought provoking and important for people to read. There are some contradictions and very pro-American elements that I found a bit hard to swallow, but overall I recommend that you give this book a read.

Harris attacks Islam, Christianity and Judaism with equal fervor. For those of us who have seen the inherent ignorance and delusions embedded in these faiths, The End of Faith is a well-articulated treatise.

The book takes a few unexpected turns to discuss the neurological make-up of how we create our beliefs, the concept of a universal ethics and morality, but for most of the book, Harris is arguing that we have out grown the idea of the God of Abraham. He agrees that all human beings are searching for spiritual meaning in our lives and that this is okay. Harris simply claims that we must use science, reason, and evidence to explore these phenomena, and that if we continue to base our beliefs on books that were written millennia ago, and claim that each of our books is the sole true word of a god, who we have no proof exists, we will destroy ourselves before the century is over.

Below are some quotes that I found funny, meaningful, and important:
  • There is clearly no greater obstacle to a truly empirical approach to spiritual experience than out current beliefs about God.
  • Because most religions offer no valid mechanisms by which their core beliefs can be tested and revised, each new generation of believers is condemned to inherit the superstitions and tribal hatreds of its predecessors.
  • The religious moderate is nothing more than a failed fundamentalist.
  • Religious faith represents so uncompromising a misuse of the power of our minds that it forms a kind of perverse, cultural singularity- a vanishing point beyond which rational discourse proves impossible.
  • The point is that most of what we currently hold sacred is not sacred for any reason other than that it was thought sacred yesterday. Surely, if we could create the world anew, the practice of organizing our lives around untestable propositions, found in ancient literature- to say nothing of killing and dying for them- would be impossible to justify.
  • Reason is nothing less than the guarding of love.
  • Anyone who wants to know how the world is, whether in physical or spiritual terms, will be open to new evidence.
I think that last quote sums up the main idea of the book: Harris does not refute that there may be something bigger than us, that spirituality and mysticism are natural human conditions; he simply argues that faith-based religion is not, and has never been the correct tool for unlocking these mysteries. We must use the power of our minds, reason, and a collective consciousness to develop a set of universal ethics and morality. Christians, Muslims, and Jews cannot all be right. The very fabric of their creeds tells us this! They are not all going to heaven. So what now? We must find a way to unite humanity not create to fissures. Read this book!


  1. Interesting article. I agree that Buddhism is a way of life rather than a religion! I like your blog. It has a nice tone to it! Cheers.

  2. Christopher Hitchens has had a couple of great excerpts from his new anti-religion book on slate:

    They're quite angry and offensive towards specific religions, which is fine by me but might be too provocative for some people.

    I'm just glad to read something by Hitchens that I wholeheartedly agree with -- I admire many things about his writing and his attitude but he's been justifying the Iraq war for the last five or six years, which made it hard for me to like him. This I like.

  3. I have hated Hitchens for this reason as well: he's been justifying the Iraq war for the last five or six years, which made it hard for me to like him.

    But I will check out the slate experts. I just hope he is not solely Islam bashing to build a case for Western imperialism in the Middle East.

  4. I really want to read that book now. Great line:

    We may differ on many things, but what we respect is free inquiry, openmindedness, and the pursuit of ideas for their own sake.

  5. my philosophy on relationships can apply to religion as well- if you have to work too hard to make it work- it isn't the right one. you have to completely suspend disbelief to believe in any of the world's big 4. buddhist tenets offer a way to live that is self enlightening and then ripples throughout the world. the problem is- most folks are not interested in doing the work towards being better people and making the world a better place- hence prozac and therapists. and-- outdated and outmoded religions. hmmm.... attachments to wrong thinking :) perhaps i will give these books a try- after i read the other 2 you mentioned.

  6. this book will be at the top of my "must have" list...thank you for your thoughtful review. k-