BESTSELLER: The End of Faith

A Special Online-Only Review

“Surely there must come a time when we will acknowledge the obvious: theology is now little more than a branch of human ignorance. Indeed, it is ignorance with wings.”

This quote, taken from “The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason,” crystallizes Sam Harris’ thesis that religion and faith are nothing more than determined irrationality. Harris argues that faith is responsible for much of societal violence today. Even as he condemns religion as ignorance, his sweeping generalizations and self-righteous tone reveal his non-analytical commitment to his own ideas. In the church of atheism, Harris is a hard-core fundamentalist.

Harris draws upon a wide variety of examples, from the atrocities committed by the medieval Catholic Church to recent suicide terrorists, to show the dangers of religion. This part of Harris’ argument is compelling, and he reasons convincingly that religion has caused much pain and violence in the world.

But Harris’ arguments also contain assumptions and claims that are difficult to support. A substantial portion of the book focuses on the Holocaust as confirmation of the danger of religion. Harris argues that the abject loyalty of Nazism exhibits many similar traits to organized religion. However, Harris never fully confronts Nazism’s explicit incompatibility with spiritual faith or the fact that it was based on a commitment to science and method much resembling Harris’ own ideal.

Stalin and Mao are likewise cited as evidence that “the most monstrous crimes against humanity have invariably been inspired by unjustified belief,” based on the argument that communism is essentially a political religion. In making these points Harris ignores his earlier condemnation of faith. He can never decide if it is religion or faith he is attacking and many of the contradictions in the book arise from his ellipsis of the two without any clear definition.

Harris also glosses over current examples of moderation and tolerance in religion. While he lingers for dozens of pages upon the anti-Semitism of the Inquisition, he does not address Vatican II or the Catholic Church’s current theology, which accepts other religions as possible paths to heaven.

Though Harris makes some noteworthy points, his argument is not new and often dismisses complications. “The End of Faith” should be read as only one facet of a complex, multi-layered debate, not as the vehicle of truth that Mr. Harris seems to think it is.

The End of Faith
By Sam Harris
W.W. Norton
Out Now