Thursday, February 2, 2017

Book Review: The End of Faith

A Fair Trade Book

Title: The End of Faith

Author: Sam Harris

Date: 2004

Publisher: W.W. Norton

ISBN: 978-0-393-32765-6

Length: 237 pages of text, 64 pages of endnotes and digressions, 29 pages of bibliography, 14 pages of index

Quote: “Wherever these events [terrorist attacks] occur, we will find Muslims tending to side with other Muslims, no matter how sociopathic their behavior. This is the malignant solidarity that religion breeds. It is time that sane human beings stopped making apologies for it.”

This is the token atheist book at this web site. Well, it’s easy to read. I’ll say that much in its favor. Its author disagrees with me about many things. Plenty of other authors whose books I’ve reviewed favorably, on the whole, disagree with me about many things. This is, after all, the web site where you can find a celiac’s review of a book about wheat bread.  Reasonable minds differ about many things, many of our beliefs and practices are conditioned by our experience, so it’s possible for people to disagree while both of them are “right” and for each of those people at least to respect the integrity of the other’s thought process. Well, in the case of The End of Faith, it’s not possible to respect Harris’ thought process.

On page 252 Sam Harris quotes a correspondent whose e-mail message to him began, “Sam, I like your writing style, but you are an idiot.”

More “rational, scientific” terms could have been used in the place of “idiot”—Harris doesn’t write like a person who, due to autism or whatever other factors, scored below 40 on an I.Q. test. I find myself favoring “reactionary hater.” Sam Harris hates all the religions on Earth because they are built around “dogma.” He claims to be an atheist. He even admits that “the blind embrace of atheism as a dogma,” the “godlessness” of “Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, and Kim Jong-Il,” is fully as irrational as the “see foreigners, kill foreigners” dogma of the pre-Christian ancestors of the Waorani of Ecuador.

And…and this is a fallacy typically embraced by people with three-digit I.Q. scores…but poor Harris seems to imagine that if people just reviled all “dogmas” impartially, human beings would be capable of rational, objective, logical decisions and would not replace the “dogmas” of traditional religion with weird, new little “dogmas” of their own.  

Poor, poor Sam Harris. He seems to be old enough to know better than this, so the question arises, with apologies to Dorothy Parker,

“Could it be, when he was young,
Someone dropped him on his head?”

Most humans are capable of at least imagining an ideal of Pure Reason in adherence to which we might purge some aspects of our thinking of irrational dogmas and emotions and so on. We can do this because we have a whole layer of brain tissue that no other species has. We do not, however, think with that layer of brain tissue alone, or even primarily. A lot of what goes on in our brains goes on in the parts of the brain that other species share. We do some things as mindlessly as a snake, other things as much on the basis of conditioned reactions as a dog. Whether we’re able to explain these choices in words or not, the brain reactions themselves do not take place in the part of the brain that processes words and logic. Nobody has time to think through “The thing that just bumped my knee might have been a predator” by way of explaining the knee-jerk reflex; we just do it. We just do a lot of other things, too.

We do many of those things consistently enough that the only way Pure Reason allows us to understand them is as reliable, healthy, what we might call sane reactions to external reality. Not all humans see a difference between light and dark, nor do all humans who can see light see a difference among red, green, and blue light, but enough of us do that we can agree that light and color exist. Not all humans hear a sound when someone presses middle C on a piano, nor do all humans who hear the sound hear a difference between C and D, but enough of us do that we can agree that sound and pitch exist. Not all humans recognize any cognitive experience they have as being “spiritual” or connected in any way to a Great Spirit, nor do all humans who have spiritual experiences believe the same things about the Great Spirit, but enough of us do…yes. Exactly. Efforts to purge “religion” out of human thought are inherently doomed in the same way that efforts to purge color and music out of human thought have been. For those of us who aren't condemned to it by disabilities, a godless worldview is both unrealistic and boring.

In the Bible the fool who “has said in his heart, ‘There is no God’” (Psalm 14:1) is not expressing the honest doubt of an unfortunate person who has never had a spiritual experience, nor even the anguished doubt of a person whose spiritual experience seems painfully incongruous with a world where innocent lifeforms suffer, but merely the recklessness of a criminal mind. “I’m the ‘smartest’ person in this scenario, or the strongest or fastest, or at least the only one with any reason to anticipate what I’m planning to do, so I can get away with this or that vicious act. The others won’t be able to catch me.” The psalm was saying, in context, “Even if the people you’re planning to harm can’t catch you, Something or Someone will.” 

People like Sam Harris usually have more sophisticated, “rationalistic” ways of expressing that idea, as Harris does, on page 191: “[W]e can hypothesize that whatever a [person’s current level of happiness is, his condition will be generally improved by his becoming yet more loving and compassionate, and hence more ethical. This is a strictly empirical claim—one that has been tested.” It is not, in fact, a claim that has always been confirmed by empirical tests; if you rule out the idea of rewards on a spiritual plane or in an afterlife, it’s easy to find situations in which loving, compassionate, and ethical behavior leads directly to greater unhappiness. That loving, compassionate, and ethical behavior generally leads to greater happiness often depends on a person’s faith in Powerful Goodness, which is often a matter of “dogma.” 

Humans can be taught to substitute various lesser ideals—forces of nature, idealized absent persons,idealized leaders, abstract notions like “the Tribe” or “the Family” or “Humanity,” a totalitarian state or its dictator—for the Great Spirit, and worship those lesser ideals. This is what the Bible writers called idolatry. 

Two kinds of people are tempted to idolatry: the person with the spiritual sensory impairment, whose brain fails to process spiritual experiences or ideas, and the person whose self-esteem is so low that the person feels fit to worship only “lesser gods.” Such people have sincerely worshipped odd-shaped rocks, the skulls of dead enemies (or even prey animals), “saints” whose legends can be traced to fictions based on mistakes, “ancestors” who might not have recognized any of their lives in the stories about them and who weren’t the ancestors of some of their worshippers in any case, body parts, diseases, vermin, a Marxist-Leninist State, and (in our generation) the idea of a successful global government.  It is not easy to substitute such “images” for what most of us perceive of the Holy One, but we could teach ourselves to do that if we really tried; idolatry is an error that fits into the way human minds work.

Humans cannot be taught to think on a purely logical, cerebral-cortex level at all times. That does not fit into the way human minds work. We achieve rational thought, with much practice and effort, about as easily as we achieve swimming, and can sustain either act about equally long. Humans who try to swim for too long at a time drown; humans who try to ratiocinate without letting themselves react to sensation, emotion, and conditioning for too long at a time are insane. Humans who never learn to swim and suddenly fall into deep water also have a tendency to drown; humans who let themselves be ruled by conditioning and emotion alone, without reasoning and questioning, also have a tendency to be or become insane. Harris is rational in his indictments of the insanity of excessive dogmatism, but if he imagines that it’s possible or desirable to free ourselves from all irrational or dogmatic reactions, he has lost touch with reality.

If anyone else out there cares to see an example of how, when atheistic thought and writing is good, it’s still not very good…I don’t expect to resell the copy of The End of Faith that I personally threw into a bag at a dime-a-dozen book sale, a few years ago. The true history of this volume is worth sharing. It was a shiny new book in perfect condition, probably donated by a person who had rejected it on sight without reading it. I read it, liked Harris’s style, spotted his fallacy, and thought “This would be a good gift to send to a really annoying Christian,” the idea being to channel the annoying Christian's harangues toward a conveniently remote target. I left it on a shelf, and some kittens got onto that shelf. My cats usually ignore books when they have access to them. But The End of Faith was printed on paper that resembles newsprint more than other books that were on that shelf, nice absorbent paper, a nice thick stack of it. When I picked it up again, the shelf and even the first hundred pages or so of The End of Faith still looked clean, but I knew I wasn’t going to send this book to anyone as a gift. .

I cannot believe that any of my cats actually reads—certainly not at the age of ten weeks. Most of them seem to hear and understand only a few words, although they recognize “tone of voice.” Most of the time they pay no attention to books. But when they have paid any attention to books, their reactions to books have seemed remarkably like reactions they might have had if they had been able to read the books. There may well be a scientific basis for this; my hands may leave super-subtle pheromonal cues, as yet undetected by science but no less real, on the book jackets. Then again, my belief that cats are more likely to react to pheromones as yet undetected by science than they are to have some sort of psychic intuition about what’s inside a book…is the kind of belief that can only be classified as “dogma.” Much as I enjoy thinking about things in a scientific way, humans think in dogmas. We always have and we always will. The idea that humans can think without recourse to “dogma” is, itself, a “dogma.”

If anyone wants to read The End of Faith, I’ll sell you a clean copy, as a Fair Trade Book, on this web site’s usual terms, and send a dollar per book to Harris or a charity of his choice. $5 per book, $5 per package, $1 per online payment; four books of this size would fit into one package, easily, and if they all cost $5 per book the package would cost $25 by postal money order or $26 by Paypal.