Review: Re-reading Sam Harris’ The End of Faith

Sam Harris seems to catch a special kind of flak among atheists. Unlike Dawkins, he doesn’t just have people of the Chris Mooney variety complaining that he shouldn’t criticize religion, ever. And unlike Christopher Hitchens, it isn’t really about specific political positions Harris has taken, because Harris hasn’t actually said very much about specific political issues.

Rather, it’s… well, it’s stuff like this post by Taner Edis, which says

I think the popularity of Harris should be embarrassing for nonbelievers. This mainly because a common response to public criticism of religion is is that the critic has misunderstood religion in general, or is ignorant of the specific traditions criticized. In Harris’s case, the accusations are correct. And since Harris is in a position where he legitimately represents the attitudes of many nonbelievers in the US, it may well be fair to say that American nonbelief often proceeds from a misunderstanding of religion…

…I have found myself in situations where I have had to ask fellow academics not to dismiss what I call science-minded nonbelief out of hand, just because its most public representatives include very visible scholarly disasters such as Harris.)

So, let me revisit the case where Harris annoys me the most—when he portrays Islam as an essentially violent religion by quoting violent passages from the Quran.

First of all, even trying something like this betrays unfamiliarity with the scientific and scholarly literature on religion in general….

When I first started reading Edis’ criticisms of Harris regarding Islam, I was inclined to take them seriously. After all, Edis was born in Turkey, and has had a lot more first-hand experience with Islam than I have. But after hearing a lot of this and similarly-flavored criticism of Harris, it occurred to me that it might actually be worth reading the offending passages of The End of Faith. Now that I’ve re-read large chunks of the book, I’m convinced that this sort of criticism is mostly reading things into the text that aren’t there.

As far as I can tell, Harris’ big points in The End of Faith are first, that because it’s normal to base your actions on your beliefs, it’s really important for people’s beliefs to be grounded in reality, and second, that if you want to be a “moderate” Christian, Jew, or Muslim, you’re going to have to ignore significant chunks of what you’re holy book says. What Harris doesn’t do, though, is make the sort of claim Edis is criticizing him for, that any religion is “essentially” anything.

This is an important point. Edis makes a big deal about how the relationship between the text of the Quran and what actual Muslims believe is complicated. Harris never says otherwise. Harris isn’t saying that there are no moderate Muslims, but that moderate Muslims have to ignore some of what the Quran says, and can’t legitimately claim to represent “true” Islam. That actually requires relationship between text and beliefs to be at least a bit complicated. Furthermore, my impression is that Edis denies there is a “true” Islam. So it’s not clear that Edis and Harris disagree about anything.

When it comes to many of the things Harris has caught flak for from liberals–war, torture, and so on–I think the problem is that Harris provides an unusually frank discussion of questions where he fears we have no good options. As Harris himself notes, it’s quite likely that our brains just didn’t evolve to think well about many of these questions. So no surprise that Harris’ frankness would make some people uncomfortable, and mistake “all the options may be horrible” for “Yay! Let’s do something horrible!”

I do think, though, that Harris says one incredibly foolish thing in this area, when he says that “We are now living in a world that can no longer tolerate well-armed, malevolent regimes.” Counter-intuitive though this may be, we are actually living in a world that sometimes must tolerate well-armed, malevolent regimes.

For example, from what I can tell a lot of experts think war with North Korea would mean a lot of dead civilians in Seoul. To be charitable to Harris, maybe a war with North Korea wouldn’t be as bad as I think, or maybe there’s an interpretation of Harris’ statement that doesn’t require that war. But I’m skeptical that there’s a reading of Harris’ statement that wouldn’t require us to do something catastrophically foolish in some not-too-far-out situation.

Other than that, the biggest complaint I had on re-reading The End of Faith is that in a few places, Harris will carelessly use muddle-headed tropes that are easily turned back on him. In particular, there’s this quote:

Once a person believes–really believes–that certain ideas can lead to eternal happiness, or to its antithesis, he cannot tolerate the possibility that the people he loves my be led astray by the blandishments of unbelievers. Certainty about the next life is incompatible with tolerance in this one.

Harris gets something importantly right here, that the belief that infidels are damned is very dangerous. But the way says it is just begging to have believers complaining about atheists being so certain and intolerant.

The right response to this sort of criticism is that it’s the content of the beliefs that matters, not the level of certainty with which they’re held. Better to be certain the Earth revolves around the Sun, than think that God probably wants you to kill infidels. And “tolerance,” sadly, has become a meaningless feel-good word that Harris would’ve been wise to avoid.

Consider this an open thread, especially for airing your likes/dislikes of The End of Faith.

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26 Comments.

  1. Harris is the type of guy who would set up Gulags to “re-educate” Christians if he had the political power to do so.

    After all, its not as if that kind of thing has not happened in the past.

    However, there Gnu Atheists are so socially autistic that they will never get elected to any significant post.

    Not that I am actually complaining…maybe I should not admit this, but I am all for them being just as insulting and offensive as they want! Call Christian parents Child Abusers for talking about god in front of their kids(Dawkins), say they belong in Zoos Dennet, say religion poisons EVERYTHING (drunken War Monger Hitchens), say that it is even ethical to kill some people for their BELIEFS (Harris).

    Seriously, Bring It On! :twisted:

  2. What an incredibly stupid remark, JD.

  3. Yeah, it kind of is because if these people ever had political power over me I would be in deep shit.

    But its all true, sport, its all true. :twisted:

  4. Oh, and Tom, that was a good start, but can’t you be really offensive, and maybe make some accusations and stuff?

    That is what I like to go around the web encouraging atheists to do.

    I mean, I just want them to show how they really feel so people will know in advance…none of this accomodation crap for me. :evil:

  5. Daniel Almeida

    JD- What the hell are youtalking about?! Have you forgotten that atheism started long before the nw atheists?

  6. Dawkins never said he would take away children from their parents for being raised religious. He said

    1)labeling children with the religion of their parents was child abuse

    and

    2)threatening them with hell for leaving the fold was child abuse.

    You’ve been watching to much WLC

  7. Feed the troll! FEEEEED him! He hungers!

  8. Dawkins would like to be able to charge all those child abusers with crimes.

    You know it, I know it, we all know it.

    And the War Monger Hitchens…who fortunately has to shut his murderous mouth now…hated Muslims so much that there wasn’t a war against them he wouldn’t cheer.

    So, I tell atheists what I really think, so they will in turn tell Christians what they really think about Christians.

    You see, I want it all out in the open.

    I want Sam Harris to keep telling people that “Some beliefs are so dangerous that it may be ethical to kill people for believing them”.

    I want Sam to keep defending torture.

    I want Sam to keep making excuses for Pre Emptive Nuclear War.

    I want Sam to keep promoting the Mecca Option.

    I want Sam to keep telling the Jews they are to blame “for their own victimhood” becaue they would not assimilate fast enough.

    I want it, and I’m getting it! :twisted:

  9. JD, you are insane.

    You know it, I know it, we all know it.

  10. Sam Harris has defended torture, killing people for their beliefs, pre emptive nuclear war, blaming Jews for their own victimhood, and the Mecca Option.

    And of course you don’t dispute this.

    And you say I am the insane one! :razz:

    Look in a mirror if you want to see Delusional Denial! :twisted:

  11. “Tom, that was a good start, but can’t you be really offensive, and maybe make some accusations and stuff?”

    I guess I could accuse an opposing ideological group of wanting to set up gulags, based on exactly no evidence.

    “But its all true, sport, its all true.”

    I’ll deal with some of it:

    1. Dawkins’ position on religion as child abuse is more narrow, subtle, and specific than what you state. He does not consider it abuse for parents to “talk about god in front of their children.” And he has explicitly stated that he would not want a world in which we criminally prosecute parents for even extreme forms of indoctrination.

    2. “After all, its not as if that kind of thing has not happened in the past.”

    It’s not as if what hasn’t happened in the past? Sam Harris trying to set up gulags? People like Sam Harris trying to set up gulags? People that have nothing to do with Sam Harris trying to set up gulags? Show me what historical example you had in mind and I’ll show you a preposterous anachronism.

    (As a side note: if you’re going to be that vague, you’re practically begging for an asinine pissing match in which your opponents say things like “If JD had the power to exterminate all the Jews with gas chambers, he would. After all, it’s not as if that sort of thing hasn’t happened before.” Perhaps you excel at those sorts of conversations, but most of us find them dull and unenlightening.)

    3. Please show me where Dennett said that Christians belong in zoos. I’m not calling you a liar just yet, but you really must substantiate this claim.

    4. It is false that Hitchens hates Muslims and supports all wars against them. If you knew just a little more than what’s necessary to compose these puerile tirades, you’d realize how foolish you sound when you attempt a generalization like this.
    Hitchens has for many years described the conflict in the middle east as a civil war between Muslims; he wants to see the west intervene on one side of that conflict. His primary interest in regime change came from his affiliation with, and loyalty to, the Kurds, most of whom are Muslim. And the ideological thread of both neoliberal interventionists and neoconservatives traces back through the mid-nineties genocide in the Balkans: do you have any idea what the relevant religious demographics were when pressure from these ideological factions finally compelled Clinton to intervene?

    I’ll stop there, for now.

  12. Hi Chris,

    First-time visitor. I stumbled across this post because I’m currently embroiled in a debate with a fellow atheist about this exact issue (Harris and his criticism of Islam). I’m currently of the view that Taner Edis holds, whereas my opponent’s argument is very similar to yours. I happen to agree with most of your analysis of the what’s in The End of Faith, but I think we also have to consider what Harris has since gone on to say about Islam both on the circuit tour and in print (for example in the Huffington Post).

    My question for you is this: hasn’t Harris gone far beyond what he wrote in The End of Faith and been attacking Islam/Muslims in exactly the ways that Taner mentions?

    For example, when he makes statements like “No one lies awake at night worrying about the Amish…”, insinuating that people do lie awake at night worrying about Muslims, it seems like he’s gone far, far beyond pointing out that people who take the Koran literally are quite dangerous or that moderates must ignore parts of what is written in the Koran.

    I’m not sure exactly what Harris is trying to achieve with the vitriol. I’d be interested in your thoughts on the matter.

  13. What is Harris trying to acheive with the vitriol?

    The End of Faith…and if it means torture, war, or extermination of those with beliefs that HE DECIDES are dangerous, then so be it.

    As I said, its happened before.

    I.E., atheists with the political power to do so have killed MILLIONS of Christians and, YEP, they did it because they were atheists.

    Solzhenitsyn, the Nobel Prize Winner, proved this beyond doubt in the Gulag Archipelago series.

    Denial of this is just Willfully Ignorant Delusion.

    So what do I want?

    I want it out in the open! I want the atheists to throw all the insults and smears they can think of and SHOW THE HATE brother!

    And I’m getting it. :evil:

  14. Solzhenitsyn proved beyond doubt that the Soviets behind the labor camps and forced starvations did so because they were atheists?

    You can’t possibly have read Gulag Archipelago if you think that, but so long as you’re pretending to know something about the subject, please reconstruct his argument for our benefit, JD.

    “I want the atheists to throw all the insults and smears they can think of and SHOW THE HATE brother!”
    I’ve been derisive, but not hateful. You might consider what adjectives would describe your own tone.

    Do feel free to respond to my earlier charge that you’ve issued a series of false claims.

  15. In answer to your first question…yes.

    And you can’t possibly be familiar with Solzhenitsyn’s Three Volume series The Gulag Archipelago if you DON’T know that the people who persecuted the Christians…not just set up Gulags and forced labor systems…were motivated by their atheism in their hatred of religion.

    Start with page 36 of Volume One of the Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn’s work was good enough for the Nobel Prize committee and you are in Denial, if not lying outright.

    And read about leaders like Trotsky, who liked to ride around Russia in his armoured train burning churches and killing Believers…one of the last things Trotsky did was publish in his Last Testament that he was motivated by his committed atheism.

    So, no false claims are made by me…you are the one making the false claims, because you KNOW that people like Harris have done what he advocates, killing people for their beliefs, carrying out torture, etc., etc., in the past.

    And yes you have been derisive, and hateful, but you could do better.

    I’m not kidding when I say I want the atheists to get it out in the open and lay it on the Christians even more than they are.

    I want it, and I’m getting it! :twisted:

  16. You seem to have trouble with simple distinctions. There’s a difference between “Solzhenitsyn believed that…” and “Solzhenitsyn proved beyond doubt that…”, just as there’s a distinction between “they were in part motivated by hatred of religion” and “they did it because they are atheists”, especially when the latter claim is intended as proof that Sam Harris would do the same thing.

    Sure, if you ignore these distinctions, your point of view makes some sense. Scientology and Astrology are also pretty plausible if you squint just the right way. If you spent half as much time trying to understand your opponent’s position and respond more carefully, rather than begging for demonstrations of hatred and accusing everyone of “delusion”, you might say something worth taking seriously.

    And yes, you have made numerous false claims. I highlighted a few in my second post, specifically regarding Dawkins and Hitchens; you failed to respond.

  17. :roll: Solzhenitsyn didn’t Believe it…he reported what he and eyewitnesses saw and heard. He knew it and proved it.

    Its a fact, but you are in Denial, unable to face the implications for your own Beliefs. Which, in my opinion, will make you complicit in what comes down in the future.

    As to Dawkins and Hitchens, whats to respond to? My claimss were fact based and you simply deny them, just as you betray your ignorance of Solzhenitsyn’s work and Trotsky’s actions. And Hitchens for example was not just concerned about the Balkans or the Kurds, he backed the Bush and Obama wars to the hilt…on top of that, he has said the “religion poisons everything”, the true mark of a bigot.

    Your “no true Scotsman” fallacy won’t work here. :cool:

    But your responses are too mild, because you know you are covering up for these swine. You poor deluded incompentent. :roll:

  18. 1. Solzhenitsyn did indeed report what he saw, and what other eyewitnesses reported to him. But “they did it because they are atheists” is a judgement too subtle and complex than to simply be a matter of eyewitness testimony. (Especially since you meant “because they are atheists” to be interpreted so strongly as to indicate that the genocide and gulags are an intrinsic part of the atheist mindset, when you invoked Solzhenitsyn to defend your absurd claims that Harris would act just as the Soviets did.)

    2. Its a fact, but you are in Denial, unable to face the implications for your own Beliefs
    Just to be clear, here again you commit yourself to the same, stronger claim that I identify above.

    3. As to Dawkins and Hitchens, whats to respond to? My claimss were fact based and you simply deny them
    If I go and dig up the quote where Dawkins explicitly denies your claim that he wants to charge religious parents with “crimes”, will you admit you’re wrong?
    Because it’s hardly worth my time if you just use it as another opportunity to post emoticons and make sweeping judgments replete with misplaced capitalization.

    As to Hitchens, I can’t even make heads or tails of your reply. I eviscerated your baseless assertion that he is motivated by a simple hatred of Muslims to support all wars against them.
    I never said or implied that he was “only” concerned with the Balkans, so your denial of this claim is trivial. Similarly, I never denied that he backed the Bush/Obama military ventures; in fact I explicitly invoked those cases to disprove you. I’d ask you to read my posts a bit more carefully before composing your replies.

    But your responses are too mild, because you know you are covering up for these swine. You poor deluded incompentent.

    That’s rich.
    But am I deluded, or aware that I am covering for them? As it can hardly be both, your assessment strikes me as incompentent.

  19. Solzhenitsyn clearly reported on what atheists told him and the eyewitnesses he dealt with, and a key thing was always that they hated believers because they did not believe in God.

    They acted because of their atheism. Communism did not have to be atheistic, as the concept has been around for millenia, but in the form it took in the past century…Dialectical Materialism…if was, and hence diametrically opposed to religion.

    That was one reason Trotsky helped arrange the killing of believers, and in his Testament plainly stated that he was an “irreconcilable atheist”.

    But to listen to you, no matter what an atheist does, it has nothing to do with atheism…”No True Scotsman”, and its not going to work.

    If Dawkins says religious education is child abuse, it has something to do with atheism.

    If Harris says it is ethical to kill people for their beliefs, it has something to do with atheism. Just as does his support of torture, pre emptive nuclear war against Muslim states, and the MECCA OPTION.

    If Hitchens supports every military action against Muslim countries, WHILE CLAIMING THAT “relgion poisons everything”, it has something to do with atheism.

    Your “no true atheist” fallacy fails.

    But you can’t admit it to yourself because you are a Fundamentalist Atheist. :cool:

  20. This has become beyond boring, so I’ll offer some concluding remarks:

    I’ve already requested that you examine my posts more carefully before responding, but you insist on debating a fictitious “atheist” caricature who is only too happy and willing to make the fallacies you know how to rebut. It’s insipid and solipsistic.

    I never employed a “no true Scotsman” fallacy, as I never asserted anything of the form that “An atheist who does or believes x, y, and z is not a true atheist”. Instead, I merely asked you to accept an appropriate burden of proof when asserting that an atheist today would set up gulags, given the chance, because some atheists (with completely different ideologies) did so a century ago.

    As you insist that this burden of proof constitutes a logical fallacy, I’m content to leave the exchange where it is, satisfied that a resolution is not possible but that our point of disagreement is as clear as it could be.

  21. Generally, I think tom hits the nail on the head, but I want to address a particular point from above:

    Solzhenitsyn clearly reported on what atheists told him and the eyewitnesses he dealt with, and a key thing was always that they hated believers because they did not believe in God… They acted because of their atheism.

    I could apply a similar description to the Inquisition: they hated Jews, Muslims, etc. because they did not believe in God… they acted because of their Catholicism.

    Religion implies dogmatic belief, but not all dogmatic beliefs are part of a religion. When atheist writers like Harris describe communism as being ‘like a religion,’ this is what they’re referring to. Being an atheist doesn’t make one immune from dogmatic belief–a point which many atheist writers fail to point out. However, unlike religions conviction, atheism isn’t predicated on dogmatic belief.

  22. From what I’ve seen Sam Harris takes a lot of flak in apologist circles for making many false or exaggerated claims about religion and religious violence. For example Sam Harris in the book names a set of conflicts he believes are religious (some of which are secular) and says they’ve killed “millions of people” in the past ten years. Vox Day totalled up the death tolls from all the conflicts in his book and finds they barely reach 500000. I know Sam Harris other book “Letter to a Christian nation” had some howlers about how the bible did not give the value of pi to 2 decimal places and what not.

  23. Tom, the Gulags were not a century ago, and in Officially Atheistic states even today believers are being imprisoned, tortured and killed because of the atheists hatred of religion.

    It goes beyong mere economic struggle; the hatred comes from a desire to eliminate belief.

    Sam Harris calls for “the End of Faith”, Hitchens calls religion a poison, and Dawkins slanders believers with his own particular obscence accusations.

    They are they type of men who would commit atrocities if they had the power…Hitchens was, and is, gun ho for any wars against believers, and Harris has argued for pre-emptive nuclear war and torture.

    There are plenty of people whom I know who will never submit to rule by such creatures.

    You are in denial. :cool:

  24. Oh why oh why do I allow myself to get sucked in again?

    Tom, the Gulags were not a century ago

    Fair enough; I had in mind the formation of Bolshevik labor camps, set up nearly a century ago. The Gulag was not officially formed until 81 years ago. Happy to take the correction, which changes nothing from my argument.

    Officially Atheistic states even today believers are being imprisoned, tortured and killed because of the atheists hatred of religion.

    Please offer a criterion for when it is acceptable to move from the particular to the general.

    Your criterion has to be sufficiently broad to implicate Harris for the crimes of Stalin, or modern day China (is that the state you had in mind?), but sufficiently narrow to prevent implicating mild mannered evangelical charity workers for the crimes of the inquisition and Joseph Kony.
    The criterion you identify must be plausible and not ad hoc. Absent such a criterion, you have no argument.

    Sam Harris calls for “the End of Faith”, Hitchens calls religion a poison, and Dawkins slanders believers with his own particular obscence accusations.

    Good on them. I call for an end to Astrology, homeopathic medicine, bad reality TV shows, and the playing of Justin Bieber’s music. That’s not proof that, given the power, I would commit crimes against humanity to realize my preferences.

    And if some loon in charge of a military dictatorship halfway across the globe had used violence to realize identical preferences, such a charge against me would be no less preposterous.

    They are they type of men who would commit atrocities if they had the power

    No need to keep asserting it. I know your position on this. You need better arguments, not more assertions.

    You are in denial.

    1. See above.
    2. Denial is a psychological phenomenon involving the rejection of unpleasant facts. Most of the facts you invoke are ones that I accept; I even took your correction above, however inconsequential.
    I find your argument wholly unpersuasive, but that’s not what “denial” refers to. In fact, I have gone to great lengths to explain both what is wrong with your argument, and what you would have to do to make it successful. I’m treating you with much more seriousness than you’ve earned, but your attempts at diagnosis are misguided and cheap.

  25. muslims do not assimilate into western society because islam is a theocracy and demands supremacy. there is no radical, moderate, hijacked or any other nuanced semanticism type of islam. there is only islam which is based on the life of a murdering 8th century warlord.

    the twin fogs of political correctness & ignorance must be dispersed before western society better understands this menace. even a brief review of islamic theology & history quickly exposes the deadly roots of this evil ideology.

    see the links in the pdf version below for more accurate info about islam
    ==========

    islam is a horrible ideology for human rights

    5 key things about islam

    1. mythical beliefs – all religions have these (faith) because its part of being a religion: having beliefs without proof until after the believer dies. the problem is people will believe almost anything.

    2. totalitarianism – islam has no seperation of church and state: sharia law governs all. there is no free will in islam: only submission to the will of allah as conveniently determined by the imams who spew vapors to feather their own nests. there are no moderate muslims: they all support sharia law.

    3. violence – islam leads the pack of all religions in violent tenets for their ideology & history: having eternal canonical imperatives for supremacy at all costs and calling for violence & intimidation as basic tools to achieve these goals.

    4. dishonesty – only islam has dishonesty as a fundamental tenet: this stems from allah speaking to mohamhead & abrogation in the koran which is used to explain how mo’s peaceful early life was superseded by his warlord role later.

    5. misogyny – present day islam is still rooted in 8th century social ethics: treating females as property of men good only for children, severely limiting their activities, dressing them in shower curtains and worse.

    conclusions ??

    there really are NO redeeming qualities for this muddled pile of propaganda.

    islam is just another fascist totalitarian ideology used by power hungry fanatics on yet another quest for worldwide domination and includes all the usual human rights abuses & suppression of freedoms.

    graphics version
    http://img829.imageshack.us/img829/5792/dangero.jpg

    1 page pdf version – do file/download 6kb viewer doesn’t show fonts well, has better fonts header footer links, great for emailing printing etc
    http://docs.google.com/viewer?a=v&pid=explorer&chrome=true&srcid=0B_UyNP-72AVKYWNiNTFlYTEtMTA1ZC00YjhiLTljMDUtMDhhNDE0NDMzNmYz

  26. there is no radical, moderate, hijacked or any other nuanced semanticism type of islam. there is only islam which is based on the life of a murdering 8th century warlord.

    This claim is just empirically false. I have known quite a few moderate, assimilated, anti-violence, non-theocratic Muslims. The may be deluded, they may be ignoring huge sections of the Koran, they may be confused or wrong for other reasons, but these folks do exist – in huge numbers – and that’s enough to disprove your claim.