Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The End of Faith - Sam Harris

Sam Harris is America's answer to Richard Dawkins, another Big Name Atheist who is fightin' the good fight on the other side of the Pond. While the message is broadly the same, the style could hardly be more different - for all Dawkins's seething frustration, he maintains a reserved and matter-of-fact Englishness, whereas Harris is all bombast and apocalypse. The focus also differs between the books - where Dawkins concentrates on the perpetuation of ignorance and the damage religion is doing to science and education, Harris is much more concerned with the potential for global warfare and acts of terror.

As soon as the book opens, Harris goes straight for the jugular, tearing into moderate theists for allowing extremists to flourish in their midst. He makes a rather stronger anti-moderate case than Dawkins, if only because Dawkins' attack came a bit later in the book when he was starting to tail off a bit. Essentially, the moderates' worldview perpetuates the idea that it's OK to hold irrational beliefs, which means that the fanatics' ideals are only able to be ineffectively clipped, not dug out by the roots. It would be fine if he'd left it there, but Harris then goes on to undermine his points by a) attempting a bit of dodgy philosophy and b) coming across as a total arsehole.

After all his sweeping dismissal of the fundamentalist absolutes, Harris comes up with his own unsupported ideas about objective ethics and absolute morality; from somewhere, he's gained the notion that the laws of ethics should be as immutable as the laws of physics (not coincidentally, these absolute ethics tie in rather well with his own views). This is edging into Goodkind territory, especially when he basically advocates torture and genocide as a method of preserving world peace and saving us "from the fanatics". While his analysis of Islam makes for scary reading, his own views are far from comfortable; he's either badly misinterpreted the data on the universal moral sense, or he's just so full of hubris that he really believes Truth, Justice and the American Way to be some kind of natural law.

The final chapter is even stranger, as it takes a big sidestep and starts discussing theories of consciousness. The connection to faith is rather tenuous, and the purpose of this chapter seems to be largely an excuse for him to show off his own theories and research on the topic, none of which say anything particularly interesting. Like Dawkins, the rant just sort of fizzles out at the end.

Now, on one hand, it's a good thing that so many intelligent books are being published on the subject of atheism. On the other hand, I'm not sure Sam Harris is the type of guy I'd like to have in my corner. He's certainly educated and articulate, but his blind faith in his own rather dubious ethics is just as damaging as that of the fundamentalists he's assailing. In the same way that moderate Christians complain about the bad name given to their faith by the fundies (for example, this wonderfully scathing page-by-page demolition of Left Behind by a moderate evangelist - it's long but very funny), I would also not want Harris to be seen as the spokesman for all atheists. This may be a good book for sparking debate, but there's not a whole lot in here that I'd personally subscribe to.



Blogger Chris, The Book Swede said...

I won't be buying this one, then -- thanks! I'm atheist myself, but I have noticed that there can be fundamentalists even in Atheism.

Do you listen to a podcast called Skeptics Guide to the Universe -- I think you should. It's not just on religion, they talk about all aspects of science, sociology, psychology, the latest developments, have great interviews, and are a very clever, funny - often hilarious - group of people. Anyway, that's my shameless plug!

Great review,

The Book Swede

8:29 am  

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