I’m blogging my way through the book that launched the New Atheist movement: Sam Harris’ The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason. Please read the earliest posts in this series before reading this one.
Harris sets out the messages of his book:
Your beliefs define your vision of the world; they dictate your behavior; they determine your emotional responses to other human beings.
…There seems, however, to be a problem with some of our most cherished beliefs about the world: they are leading us, inexorably, to kill one another…
Our situation is this: most of the people in this world believe that the Creator of the universe has written a book. We have the misfortune of having many such books on hand, each making an exclusive claim as to its infallibility… [and] the central tenet of every religious tradition is that all others are mere repositories of error or, at best, dangerously incomplete. Intolerance is thus intrinsic to every creed. One 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 might be led astray by the blandishments of unbelievers. Certainty about the next life is simply incompatible with tolerance in this one.
…Our technical advances in the art of war have finally rendered our religious differences… antithetical to our survival… Words like “God” and “Allah” must go the way of “Apollo” and “Baal,” or they will unmake our world.1
Now that is pleasurable prose to read, but we might object: wait a minute, what about all the religious people who are tolerant? Surely they prove that intolerance is not intrinsic to every creed. Harris responds:
Of course, people of faith fall on a continuum: some draw solace and inspiration from a specific spiritual tradition, and yet remain fully committed to tolerance and diversity, while others would burn the earth to cinders if it would put an end to heresy. There are, in other words, religious moderates and religious extremists, and their various passions and projects should not be confused. [But] religious moderates are themselves the bearers of a terrible dogma: they imagine that the path to peace will be paved once each of us has learned to respect the unjustified beliefs of others. [In contrast] I hope to show that the very ideal of religious tolerance… is one of the principal forces driving us toward the abyss.
…[Even] intellectuals as diverse as H.G. Wells, Albert Einstein, Carl Jung, Max Planck, Freeman Dyson, and Stephen Jay Gould have declared the war between reason and faith to be long over… [But] it is only because the church has been politically hobbled in the West that anyone can afford to think this way. In places were scholars can still be stoned to death for doubting the veracity of the Koran, Gould’s notion of a “loving concordat” between faith and reason would be perfectly delusional.2
Before I respond, we will next look more closely at Harris’ indictment of religious moderates.