Once upon a time, I read books to learn the arguments for and against the existence of god and for religion in general. It only took so long for me to feel fully comfortable on the side of atheism. Now my reading has expanded more into things I’m curious about (it’s almost as if I named this blog that on purpose) like paleoanthropology and early Christianity. Relaxing with a good book has been one of my very favorite pastimes for a while. But I knew that my atheist reading repertoire wouldn’t be complete until I had finished Sam Harris’s The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason. Unfortunately, it was anything but relaxing. In fact, I’d say that reading this was exhausting.
The End of Faith is, of course, the first of four major landmark books from the “Four Horsemen of New Atheism,” which is a movement, if you can call it that, that sprung from the September 11th attacks. The End of Faith was published in August 2004, and the three following books are The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins (October 2006), Breaking the Spell by Daniel Dennett (February 2007), and God is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens (May 2007). I’ve reviewed the others already, which made The End of Faith feel quite a bit repetitive, but I will try not to let that color my review too harshly, since it’s my own fault that I didn’t read them in order of publication.
The End of Faith was Harris’s first book (but again, not the first of his that I’ve read), and his passion for writing it was sparked by 9/11. We know that it’s a good thing to be moved to action by tragedy, but I don’t think it did his writing any favors; he seemed frazzled, upset, and angry that the religious side of the world just doesn’t understand why, well, their faith needs to end. This was especially frustrating for me as the reader, because he never alluded to who his target audience even was.
Authors don’t necessarily always have to come right out and tell you who they’re writing a book for, but I think it’s invaluable when you’re writing a furiously persuasive-style book on one of the most polarizing topics of all time. You can say what you like about Dawkins’ writing (and I certainly do), but in all three books I have read by him, he has outlined in detailed introductions just who each book is for and what those people should think by the end of it. But Harris does no such thing. He just jumps right into a hypothetical about a young suicide bomber and the fact that it’s almost indisputable that he is Muslim. That might make for a good opening scene to a dramatic novel, but it left me with no context as to what The End of Faith actually is.
But it gets worse. You see, The End of Faith is not the type of book you want to be reading without any roadmap at all. It didn’t take me long to see that all seven chapters take winding tangents all over the place. Following are the chapters as well as what was actually discussed in each:
1. Reason in Exile (Muslim extremism, heaven and hell, spirituality, leaving religion in the past)
2. The Nature of Belief (psychology, spirituality, something that sounds like philosophy)
3. In the Shadow of God (the Inquisition, the Salem Witch Trials, Judaism, and the Holocaust)
4. The Problem with Islam (Islamic terrorism (again), the United States being morally superior)
5. West of Eden (Christian nationalism, the war on drugs, stem cell research, and abortion)
6. A Science of Good and Evil (an argument for objective morality (with weird tangents), realism vs. pragmatism, the ethics of torture or bombing civilians in war)
7. Experiments in Consciousness (consciousness and mysticism)
Tangents aside, what was the main thesis of this book? It’s the idea that religion is harmful and if you truly follow your religion by the book, word for word, you would kill any nonbeliever, whether you’re a Christian, a Muslim, or a Jew (especially if you’re Muslim). Harris uses this to show why these religions are harmful and should be left in the past. This is where I have to disagree with his methods even when I agree with his conclusion. It all comes back to the question: who are you persuading that religion is harmful? Me? Because I know that already. A Christian? They know that Islam is dangerous, but they won’t see the plank in their own eye. A Muslim? They know about suicide bombing. It’s part of their religion.
In The God Delusion, Dawkins makes a pretty similar point about true followers of the bible or Koran being fearless killers, but that book, while it has its own flaws, has so much more in it. It addresses evolution, cosmology, the origins of religion and morality, and the arguments for God themselves. Meanwhile, The End of Faith focuses solely on the terror caused by religion and why we should be very afraid of those who wield not only Korans but also nuclear weapons. It would strike me as fear-mongering if I didn’t believe him—but I do.
Of course, there are instances like the above mentioned when instilling fear in your audience is important. If you truly ponder the terror that religion has caused for centuries, you will (hopefully) be moved to action against it, or at least against the worst of it. No one wants to spend eight minutes and forty six seconds imagining the suffering that George Floyd went through, but we have to. That’s what drives us to action and to have conversations that we don’t want to, but need to, have. So I understand being gruesome when you are trying to motivate.
But this book really goes over the top with macabre descriptions long past those of Islamic terrorism. Harris just throws around examples of the worst and most grisly of human behavior for no good reason. I didn’t want to know about the cat-burning hobby of sixteenth century Parisians. That makes me sick. (I actually had to put the book down and lie down to calm my stomach.) And what good does it do me to know that? That’s not motivating me to do anything. I feel like historic cat-burning rituals are the last thing we need to be thinking about in 2020.
I’m sorry for sharing that example with you; I just wanted to vent my frustration at some of the more gory parts of this book. It makes me sad to think that most people, when they think of atheists, think of people like Sam Harris and the things that he says in The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation. I think it would do much better at dissuading the religion of their convictions to try to show them, for example, the origins of Christianity or even the origins of humankind at large. But I think I already shared the best way to show people that they don’t need religion in my review of another Sam Harris book, so I will leave you with that.
“To me, the most persuasive thing you can do is just be a good person and a good example. Show them that you can live an ethical life without god, and that in itself will shatter many people’s preconceived notions that the god of the bible is the backbone of morality. Present scientific facts and ideas in a way that is educational and not for the sake of proving someone wrong. If you are an atheist who was once religious, tell your story in a way that the listener can possibly see how you got out of it and how it’s influenced you.
Harris was adamant that in order for society to progress, religion needs to be abolished completely. Because of this, he is a proponent of calling out the religious on their BS, even if it is offensive. The problem is that, as I said, this won’t get the secular results that he’s looking for. Getting rid of religion completely is grossly unrealistic to begin with, and until then the solution is not to point fingers at the religious and tell them that they’re the reason the world went bad. Instead, we should be building better relationships and greater understanding in the hopes that eventually, this care for humankind will be a foremost priority with or without a god.”