Welcome to a new series of articles! I've decided that it would be a good thing to engage with some of the prominent skeptical and atheist literature out there and share my thoughts with the world. I’ve opted to do reports (of an informal sort) on books as I read them. I intend to break down the overall narrative of the work, highlighting key arguments and concepts, and responding to those arguments, and the book as a whole. This inaugural entry will focus on Sam Harris’s The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason. I am admittedly late to the party on this one, but as a commonly cited work online I felt it was worth sharing my thoughts on it. The book is comprised of seven chapters, somewhat loosely related to one another, but all committed to his attack against faith. In chapter one, “Reason in Exile”, Harris argues that reason has been forced to take a backseat to faith throughout much of history, and it continues its struggles against irrationality and insanity today. His argument is rather simple: we, as a species, are doomed to failure unless we can bring our rational skills to bear against the biggest problems we face. One of those dire problems is the issue of faith and its impact on the world. Harris worries that a world blinded by faith and driven by misguided and irrational beliefs is one that may very well be incapable of surmounting the mounting problems facing it. It is a compelling start to his treatise, efficiently laying out why this book is necessary and why reasoned people should rally to its cause.
In chapter two, “The Nature of Belief”, Harris lays out what “beliefs” are and what they causal role should be, properly understood. He notes that all beliefs must be supported to some extent by evidence of one kind or another in order to be connected in any way to the world in which we live: “There must be some causal connection, or an appearance thereof, between the fact in question and my acceptance of it. In this way, we can see that religious beliefs, to be beliefs about the way the world is, must be in spirit as evidentiary in spirit as any other.” (p. 63) The problem with faith, unbiased or grounded by evidence, is that it is unbounded and unrestricted. “Faith is what credulity becomes when it finally achieves escape velocity from the constraints of terrestrial discourse – constraints like reasonableness, internal coherence, civility, and candor.” (p. 65) The danger that arises from faith is that beliefs based wholly on faith are unassailable by any external measure. Blind adherence to a creed is treated as a badge of honor, absolving the holder of that belief from any and all moral liability. They must answer to no one, irrespective of how outlandish the belief is: “The danger of religious faith is that it allows otherwise normal human beings to reap the fruits of madness and consider them holy.” (p. 73)
“Faith is what credulity becomes when it finally achieves escape velocity from the constraints of terrestrial discourse – constraints like reasonableness, internal coherence, civility, and candor.”
I share Harris’s worries. Someone who cannot be reasoned with, who cannot be dissuaded, is a truly terrifying force. These are the types of people willing to strap explosives to their chest and detonate themselves in the middle of a crowded bazaar. These are people so wholly attached to an unverified belief system that they are ready to sacrifice the only life they have for what is likely a fairy tale for adults. The power of any such belief should not be taken lightly and Harris is, in my opinion, right to point out the danger in such adherence to beliefs supported only by faith.
I have opted to skip chapters three and four for the purposes of this article, insofar as they are primarily attacks on two of the world’s major religions: Christianity and Islam. While compelling damnations of each, these serve only to highlight the dangerous power each has wielded in the past, and how irresponsibly this power has been applied. They are neither exhaustive nor systematic attacks, but the facts contained within underscore the urgency of Harris’s campaign against faith. I think the following quotation (of a quotation, it so happens) from chapter three emphasizes the theme here: “The basic lesson to be drawn from all this was summed up nicely by Will Durant: “Intolerance is the natural concomitant of strong faith; tolerance grows only when faith loses certainty; certainty is murderous.”” (p. 86)
Harris next focuses in on how we can best combat the problem of faith in chapter six, “A Science of Good and Evil”. As the title suggests, Harris believes that science has much to contribute to moral discourse, and far more than a mere descriptive account of how humans are and have been moral. Rather, he believes that science will and must provide prescriptive accounts of human morality. As he notes on p. 178, “…for our beliefs to function logically – indeed, for them to be beliefs at all – we must also believe that they faithfully represent states of the world. This suggests that some systems of belief will appear more faithful than others, in that they will account for more of the data of experience and make better predictions about future events.”
The thrust of all this is that for us to ever be right or wrong about moral judgments, there must be facts to which these judgments refer. As actions and beliefs are fundamentally facts about the states of human brains, there must be truths to be teased out. Harris believes we can ground morality in reference to human well-being. For example, if we ask if it is good for people to be well-fed and cared for, we would naturally say, “yes”; these factors lead to the well-being of normal people.
If well-being is our moral standard, what would you choose if you could either make everyone miserable or happy? Could someone argue that a world in which suffering and death are widespread is just a morally good as a world in which everyone is well-fed, sheltered and happy? Harris believes that the choice is so obvious and immediate that using well-being as a metric to ground human morality is the best way to go. If this is the case, we now have a ground for the facts by which we can make moral judgments.
"Harris believes that science has much to contribute to moral discourse, and far more than a mere descriptive account of how humans are and have been moral. Rather, he believes that science will and must provide prescriptive accounts of human morality."
While Harris offers up a tentative yardstick by which science can begin to prescribe moral actions, the biggest target for Harris in this chapter is the specter of moral relativism (Harris’s later book, The Moral Landscape, dives into the intersection of science and morality more completely). Moral relativism roughly states that - as there are no metaphysically objective moral truths - all moral practices are a consequence of happenstance; as such, no moral system is superior to another because neither has access to objective moral truths. The consequence of this is to forbid any one culture from criticizing or denouncing the practices of another. For instance, someone in the West who criticizes cannibalism in some small jungle tribe has no moral high ground on which to stand. Similarly, the systematic subjugation of women in hard-line Islamic countries cannot be derided or denounced by someone outside that moral culture as neither culture has the greater claim to moral truth in relation to one another.
Again, I find myself sympathetic to this line of thought, insofar as I think we must be able to describe the worst of human behavior for what it is. Murder, rape, genocide – these are things that we should be able to move past, as they are beneath the dignity of our species. We are, simply put, better than all that. More pressingly, I think that unless we can work to better ourselves as a whole, we must be able to condemn the social practices and norms that might very well lead to our destruction. There is an urgency to the abolition of moral relativism: “To lose the conviction that you can actually be right – about anything – seems a recipe for the End of Days chaos envisioned by Yeats: when “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”” (p. 180) When you have enemies in the world who are willing to - thanks to blind, unyielding, irrational faith - end themselves in the struggle to eradicate you, moral relativism is a handicap we may be able to ill afford.
“The basic lesson to be drawn from all this was summed up nicely by Will Durant: “Intolerance is the natural concomitant of strong faith; tolerance grows only when faith loses certainty; certainty is murderous.”"
Harris closes the book with a chapter on the notion of human consciousness. This is somewhat tangentially related to chapter six, insofar as he is appealing to new scientific ways of understanding what it is to be a conscious human being. His goal is to demonstrate that there is much to be learned about what it is to be conscious, and that our understanding of consciousness in the West could be informed by meditative traditions from elsewhere in the world. As our moral lives are traditionally centered on our individual conscious selves, significant changes in our conceptual understanding of consciousness could help the scientific descriptions and prescriptions of human morality.
While I find this to be an interesting chapter, I am not quite certain how well it fits with the rest of his book. I understand the point of what he is saying: there is much to discover about our mental lives and what it is to be a human being, and these discoveries could be informed by transformative shifts regarding our views of human consciousness. Given the speculative nature of this line of inquiry, however, it seems to weaken, rather than strengthen, his overall argument against faith and for a scientific understanding of morality by acting as something of a distraction.
In the end, I think this is an important work for believers and skeptics alike, because it can help us all understand why these questions of faith and morality matter. I am a man who is not entirely convinced civilization will make it out of this century. Assuming massive climate change or population growth do not destroy us, I believe religious fanaticism is next in line to finish us off. Faith is potentially dangerous, which Harris rightly points out. It separates us from vast swathes of our fellow men and reinforces those divisions with “tribalizing fictions”. (p. 176) Whether or not you agree with the conclusion Harris draws about the importance of a scientific understanding of human morality and its ability to abolish the need for faith, his arguments should at least highlight what is at stake and how we might pull ourselves away from the dangerous precipice from which faith commands so many of us to leap.
Featured image of Sam Harris courtesy of Comedy Central at m.comedycentral.com)