The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason
W.W. Norton & Company, 2020
336 pp., 46.00
Reviewed by Matthew Simpson
The terrorist attacks in September 2001 reawakened among American intellectuals the theory that religious faith makes people violent. This hypothesis goes back to antiquity; the Roman philosopher Lucretius, commenting on the horrors of the Trojan war, remarked tantum religio potuit suadere malorum, "such evil deeds can religion prompt." This view obviously draws its strength from the number of believers who have killed other people (and themselves) supposedly in the name of God. Perhaps someday social psychology will shed more light on the relationship between religion and violence. Perhaps. But Sam Harris doesn't want to wait that long. To him it is obvious that religion causes people to kill, and he wants it to go away.
The thesis of this widely noticed book is that in order to save ourselves from imminent destruction we should take all steps possible to abolish religion: "Words like 'God' and 'Allah' must go the way of 'Apollo' and 'Baal', or they will unmake our world." Two points for boldness, if nothing else.
Harris' argument for the abolition of religion goes like this: people act based on what they believe, and religious beliefs are especially apt to make people act violently; thus, since the prevention of violence is the overriding ethical imperative, religion should be done away with. The problem is that none of his premises are very plausible on the surface, and what he says in their favor makes them even less so.
First, Harris' argument relies on the idea that people's actions are determined by what they believe about the world around them. "A belief is a lever that, once pulled, moves almost everything else in a person's life. … Your beliefs determine your vision of the world; they dictate your behavior." To some degree this is true. I don't put my hand in the candle flame because I believe it will burn me. But for centuries psychologists have questioned whether beliefs alone can actually motivate actions. Passions seem to be required too, and Harris has little to say about them.
After all, it is not only my belief that the candle will burn that motivates me, it is also my desire not to get burned. A belief unaccompanied by a desire seems unable to cause any action. Even if Harris is right that violent people tend to have beliefs (religious or otherwise) that condone violence, are they violent because they have those beliefs, or do they have those beliefs because their passions dispose them toward violence? His argument relies on the former, but it seems an impossibly naïve account of human psychology.
Harris' second premise, that religious beliefs are especially apt to make people violent, is even less promising. Here at least he realizes that he needs to do some arguing. For, if people do act based on what they believe, how can he possibly say that belief in the Sermon on the Mount, for example, or in the teachings of the Buddha, is likely to cause the believer to harm other people? Indeed, if the psychological determinism that underlies Harris' first premise is true, then the spread of religions that advocate nonviolence would be a good thing for world peace.
Faced with this obvious contradiction, Harris performs a rhetorical two-step. His first move is to claim that lurking in the heart of even the most pacifistic religion is the seed of hatred and violence: "Intolerance is thus intrinsic to every creed. … Certainty about the next life is simply incompatible with tolerance in this one." To see the obtuseness of this view one may turn, for example, to John Locke's Letter Concerning Toleration of 1689. Locke uses religious arguments (in his case Christian ones) for the view that individuals and governments should leave each other alone in matters of faith. In other words, Locke not only advocated religious toleration, he advocated it for religious reasons, as did William Penn and Roger Williams, and as many other people have in the centuries since then.
Harris demonstrates a similar crudeness in his discussion of religious moderates. Given the fact, uncomfortable for him, that most believers are not murderous, he needs a reason to explain why all religion is bad, not just certain kinds of violent extremism. His answer is that moderates make life too easy for religious zealots. "The problem that religious moderation poses for all of us is that it does not permit anything very critical to be said about religious literalism." This is nonsense. One need only think of Erasmus, a priest and Augustinian monk, who spent his life using religious arguments to make the case against religious fanaticism, to see that religious moderates can have a great many critical things to say about extremism.
In short, this line of argument purporting to show that religious belief is inherently violent is going nowhere. So, intentionally or not, Harris slides into a second position. He now says that religions are dangerous not so much because of what religious people believe, but because of how they believe it. Religious faith is dangerous, he says, because it doesn't conform to the standards of scientific rationality, and it therefore encourages credulity and stupidity. He finds this deeply irritating. "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." Religion is "the venom of unreason" loose in the world, and unreason, he believes, is a dangerous thing.