Monday, April 6, 2009

The End of Faith (Book)

Commentary on Sam Harris 2004, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason, New York: Norton.

This book claims that religion leads to intolerance and terror, while 'religious moderation' keeps alive ideas which create intolerance. No beliefs about our world, he exclaims, should float entirely free of reason and evidence. Many of the problems of faith and religion come via very literal readings of scriptures, but doors leading out of scriptural literalism do not open from the inside. Rather, we should rely on rationality and evidence, and not just on authority or hearsay accepted uncritically. Later in the book, he does take moral, ethical and spiritual experiences all realistically, and sees virtue in views such as Buddhism which aim for love and compassion.

I reply that many of Harris' diagnoses of religious problems are justified, but his proposed remedies are not. I would certainly confirm that we do need reason and discourse, especially in comparison with unexamined faith. We do need to resist scriptural literalism, and especially do we need to do this from within religion. We do need to be open to new evidence, and we do need to explore and transform consciousness. All of these aims are part of theistic science.

But when we do all these things properly, we find that consciousness is not purely private. We find that there is rather a metaphysical structure that underlies consciousness, a structure which is also one of the sources of religion. I admit that religion has strayed far from its sources, falling into literalism, the ignorance of moderates, blindly following authorities, etc. But we cannot solve these problems of religion and blind faith by ignoring them and wishing that they would go away!

Instead, we do need to seek out a clear, nonparadoxical and rational understanding of theism. This way, we can return to our sources, and (even) Christianity can be renewed. One of these sources was conspicuously absent in Harris' book. He was clearly well educated about Eastern philosophies, but ignored Emanuel Swedenborg: just the kind of 'mature and stable mystic' that Harris was crying out for, to enable the rational understanding of consciousness and spirituality. Swedenborg has already begun formulating the 'Science of Good and Evil' that Harris seeks, in order to rigorously answer questions about the 'happiness and suffering of sentient creatures'.

1 comment:

  1. I agree that religion itself does not lead to "intolerance and terror", although there is some evidence that our ideas of God can promote actual brain changes that are reflected in different ways of seeing and being in the world. (A recent post I wrote on this topic is at:

    I wonder if the "rational" bits of faith (read: frontal lobe observations and analysis) provide the counterbalance to the fear/anger bits supporting our "survival" (read: limbic systems).

    As we exercise our rationality/frontal lobes, perhaps we also become more able to create the compassionate reflections of others (also associated with the frontal lobe system) -- and thus become more connected with others, more loving. ...And thus the integration of mind and spirit that spiritual regeneration brings...