Sam Harris’s unforgiving appetite for logical rigor and evidence-based reasoning help inform our opinion on terrorism, Islamic fundamentalism, and religion in general. These are my notes on The End of Faith.

A good start: atheism | current affairs

For someone looking to develop a mental map of philosophy/religion/atheism, this is a good book, but not the only one to read (add Bertrand Russell, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens to the list).

Similarly, if we’re trying to form an opinion (not just a collection of impressions) on Islamic terrorism, this should be one of many books to study. This book points to the teachings of the Koran and the Hadith as the ultimate explanation of the violence within the Muslim world and the terrorist attacks on the West.

So, a good start, but not an exhaustive read. Fortunately, the book is meticulously annotated and includes an extensive list of reference readings, sufficiently long to keep you entertained well into the after life, if you believe in such thing.

Main ideas

There are a few basic arguments from which everything else in the book follows logically.

  1. Religions do not allow for a mechanism to test the validity of their basic beliefs and tenets
    • Note that any faith-based, ideological, or dogmatic system of belief, be it religious or not, falls in this same category
    • In every other sphere of human interest (engineering, biology, medicine, politics, etc.) we have used rational discourse, free inquiry, and observation to test and re-test assumptions, beliefs, and theories resulting in previously unimaginable progress
  2. The realm of morals and ethics is susceptible to progress (and regress)
    • If you don’t agree, just think of our not so distant past (slavery, lynchings, even the Inquisition is not that distant)… don’t you react with disgust?
    • It’s imperative to take a rational approach to ethics. Understand that “questions or right and wrong are really questions about the happiness and suffering of sentient creatures. If we are in a position to affect the happiness or suffering of others, we have ethical responsibilities toward them.”
  3. In the West, we have adopted a timid stance in relation to religion, and this is not only unfortunate, but unethical and dangerous
    • In our political moderation, we have placed religion beyond the confines of rational discourse, which results in the perpetuation of anachronistic superstitions (as each new generation of believers inherits the same set of untested beliefs)
    • Our timidity prevents us from rethinking our problems of ethics and social cohesion. Harris writes “Rather than bring the full force of our creativity and rationality to bear on the problems of ethics, social cohesion, and even spiritual experience, moderates merely ask that we relax our standards of adherence to ancient superstitions and taboos, while otherwise maintaining a belief system that was passed down to us from men and women whose lives were simply ravaged by their basic ignorance about the world.”
  4. Islam is a religion of conquest and, if followed literally, Muslims wouldn’t stop until all infidels and heretics have been subjugated or destroyed
    • The End of Faith singles out Islam as the most violent of the Abrahamic religions based on a literal reading of the Koran and the Hadith. I can’t help but feel reservations in this respect because the god of The Old Testament should be in the running for the most megalomaniac, cruel, violent, and capricious. Poseidon is not far behind either. Perhaps focusing on gradations of brutality of one ancient text vs. another is not the most useful discussion, and the point is that anyone can find calls to barbarous violence in these old books.

Wish list

I have two wishes, one of addition, and one of subtraction.

  1. Wish of addition: spend more pages analyzing, or at least describing, other factors that converge with the teachings of the Koran to result in the type of violence we are seeing. Yes, unquestioning belief that the Koran contains the literal word of god is the ultimate culprit, but there definitely are circumstances that aggravate or act as catalysts to the current state of affairs. Poverty, access to education, foreign policy anyone?
  2. Wish of subtraction: the last third of the book is densely packed with philosophy and I felt that the flow was interrupted. I felt a change in style; the book turned scholarly, its annotations a bit lengthy, and we drifted away from religion, terror, and ethics into mysticism, the self, meditation, and some epistemology. I wish these topics had been covered in a separate book.

The take away

I’m taking away one passage of the book to reinforce my guiding principles in life:

“Our primary task in our discourse with one another should be to identify those beliefs that seem least likely to survive another thousand years of human inquiry [impossibly quaint and suicidally stupid beliefs]… and subject them to sustained criticism.”

Obviously religion is at the top of the list. That is the main argument of The End of Faith.

But what other beliefs and practices of today should/must be near the top? My vote goes wholeheartedly to Intensive Animal Farming.