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the Complete Review
the complete review - religion


The End of Faith

Sam Harris

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase The End of Faith

Title: The End of Faith
Author: Sam Harris
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2004
Length: 227 pages
Availability: The End of Faith - US
The End of Faith - UK
The End of Faith - Canada
The End of Faith - India
Das Ende des Glaubens - Deutschland
La fine della fede - Italia
El fin de la fe - España
  • Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason

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Our Assessment:

B : engaging in its willingness to engage religion, but tries to do too much (and treats too many issues too superficially)

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Economist . 21/8/2004 .
Financial Times . 11/2/2005 David Honigmann
The Independent . 11/2/2005 Johann Hari
The LA Times . 12/9/2004 Susan Jacoby
The Nation . 15/11/2004 Daniel Lazare
The NY Sun . 26/8/2004 John Derbyshire
The NY Times Book Rev. . 5/9/2004 Natalie Angier
The Observer . 6/2/2005 Stephanie Merritt
Salon . 2/8/2004 Laura Miller
San Francisco Chronicle . 15/8/2004 Daniel Blue

  Review Consensus:

  Some reservations, but generally like his enthusiasm

  From the Reviews:
  • "Mr Harris disagrees: tolerance on the part of moderates is precisely the attitude that allows extremists to flourish. (...) But is the argument ultimately convincing ? Presumably not to true believers, though even Mr Harris's critics will have to concede the force of an analysis which roams so far and wide (.....) By contrast, Mr Harris's supporters may be disappointed by his efforts to reconcile spirituality (...) with reason and ethics." - The Economist

  • "Harris makes his case pugnaciously and for long stretches compellingly. But his central case, that a chain of beliefs can lead one to strange and dangerous conclusions, might apply equally to his own book." - David Honigmann, Financial Times

  • "It's a bold and oddly exhilarating thesis, and for the first 50 pages Harris runs with it. (...) But The End of Faith then takes a strange and disturbing turn. (...) So ultimately, this provocative, occasionally brilliant book did not persuade me. (...) Once he begins to digress from already-long digressions, you wonder if he is padding the book." - Johann Hari, The Independent

  • "Harris is well informed in some areas, but embarrassingly bereft in others. While he knows a fair amount about religion and philosophy, he has little feel for politics and even less for the ironies of historical development. (...) Like the Ayn Randians, The End of Faith is an example of how atheism can as easily propel one to the right as to the left." - Daniel Lazare, The Nation

  • "This is one of those books where the endnotes are at least as rewarding as the main text. (...) What is wrong with Mr. Harris’ prescriptions is what was wrong with them in Russell’s time, and Spinoza’s, and Erasmus’s too, for that matter: They go against the grain of human nature." - John Derbyshire, The New York Sun

  • "The End of Faith articulates the dangers and absurdities of organized religion so fiercely and so fearlessly that I felt relieved as I read it, vindicated, almost personally understood. Sam Harris presents major religious systems like Judaism, Christianity and Islam as forms of socially sanctioned lunacy, their fundamental tenets and rituals irrational, archaic and, important when it comes to matters of humanity's long-term survival, mutually incompatible. (...) The End of Faith is far from perfect. (...) Still, this is an important book, on a topic that, for all its inherent difficulty and divisiveness, should not be shielded from the crucible of human reason." - Natalie Angier, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Unfortunately, Harris too often allows his anger at this continued deference to unreason to colour his tone, slipping into an incredulous sarcasm which might appeal to readers who agree with him, but could only succeed in alienating those who need to be persuaded. Yet his central argument in The End of Faith is sound (.....) While this book is considerably longer than it needed to be -- Harris has a tendency to over-explain his case -- it is an eminently sensible rallying cry for a more ruthless secularisation of society." - Stephanie Merritt, The Observer

  • "The point for Harris is that religious people mean exactly what they say, and this does not bode well for the rest of us. (...) The End of Faith offers something to offend everyone and is certainly not for those who read only what they agree with. Yet, despite its polemic edge, this is a happy book -- Harris is obviously tickled by his own intelligence -- and he writes with such verve and frequent insight that even skeptical readers will find it hard to put down." - Daniel Blue, San Francisco Chronicle

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       In The End of Faith Sam Harris argues that it's time that mankind finally accepted the fact that god-belief -- and the religions organised around it, especially the monotheistic ones -- are just too dangerous to tolerate any longer. The existence of weapons of mass destruction, coupled with ideologies (i.e. religions) focussed on the rewards of the afterlife, not the current life make for a mix that will inevitably lead -- sooner rather than later -- to mass carnage.
       There's no question that religion -- and especially the monotheistic-trio of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam -- have been incredibly destructive dead-ends, intellectually and morally. Other ideologies -- communism ! Nazism ! -- have led great numbers down terrible wrong paths, but none have had the staying power (or wrought such incredible and lasting damage) as organised religion.
       If nothing else, Harris book is a welcome tonic to the usual kid-glove treatment religion receives: he's willing to say that god-belief is simply foolishness. He likens it to alchemy and similar nonsense, and argues:

Faith-based religion must suffer the same slide into obsolescence.
       Harris goes over most of the problems with the beliefs organised religion is based on (focussing throughout mainly on Christianity and Islam), and, of course, the problems are familiar: there's no evidence for practically any of them, and many of the claims made for them run counter to experience and common sense. The books of the monotheistic religions -- the Bible and the Koran -- are, if read literally, a muddle of the unappealing, the outrageous, and the impossible (though creative interpretations have tried to navigate through this). Of course, the problem with the fact that religion is based on the unprovable is that that also renders it, in a sense, undeniable -- and, amazingly, the very popular option has been to embrace the latter position, despite the fact that:
while religious people are not generally mad, their core beliefs absolutely are. This is not surprising, since most religions have merely canonized a few products of ancient ignorance and derangement and passed them down to us as though they were primordial truths.
       Much of the success of the monotheistic religions can be attributed to their focus on the afterlife -- a brilliant stroke that obviates the need for god to actually makes his/her/its presence felt in the real world (and excuses the real world for so often being such an unjust hell-hole: believe and a better world awaits you). Any religion that puts all its eggs in the afterlife-basket becomes purely faith-based: if the only demonstration of its success (or failure) comes after death, then it becomes impossible for the living to ever definitely know that what they believe is true.
       As Harris emphasises, there's a huge problem with caring more about the afterlife than the real life: it can excuse or even lead to some really nasty behaviour. Suicide bombers who expect their just rewards in heaven are the most obvious or at least currently popular example, but far from the only (or even most destructive) one. It's easy to list and describe -- as Harris does -- many of the outrages committed by specifically the Catholic Church in upholding faith, for example. And while Christianity has generally been weakened to the extent that its followers are now much less likely to be convinced by religious figures to kill or physically harm large numbers of people in defence of it, Harris believes Islam has not been tempered in the same way and poses a very real and imminent threat.
       Harris is convinced that:
     To see the role faith plays in propagating Muslim violence, we need only ask why so many Muslims are eager to turn themselves into bombs these days. The answer: because the Koran makes this activity seem like a career opportunity.
       Consulting the Koran, he finds it not to be a text very forgiving (or accommodating) of infidels -- even going so far as to quote from it for pages on end, concluding: "On almost every page, the Koran instructs observant Muslims to despise non-believers." And while those who are nominally Christians and Jews have, for the most part, come into the 21st century and manage to avoid taking the similarly enthusiastically violent Biblical exhortations very seriously, Harris doesn't believe the Muslims are up to it: it's not a religion that has much patience for or interest in tolerance. (Yes, when they're in the minority in a country they might appear tolerant, he admits, but wait until they're in charge .....)
       Some of this is a bit simplistic. Harris ignores, for example, the fact that suicide bombing was once popular among those with a very different sort of faith, Nihilists, and that even without the promise of that splendid afterlife likely many disaffected youths in the Middle East nowadays could be convinced to go up in a burst of glory. Still, the potential for disaster -- especially in a world where many Muslims are indoctrinated in their faith and receive only very limited supplemental education -- is self-evident.
       Certainly, the possible dangers Islam poses in the contemporary world underline his central point -- that to have faith is not only foolish but bad. Leaving even moral issues aside, he notes "what a fathomless sink for human resources (both financial and attentional) organized religion is". Additional arguments he offers describe the impact especially in the US of religious belief, the jr. Bush administration providing countless examples, from its (now retired) mis- (but faith-) guided attorney general, John Ashcroft, to its policy (determined essentially solely on religious grounds) on stem cell research. (It is these later sections of the book that are particularly rushed and over-simplified -- unfortunate, because they make it easier for critics to attack the book.)
       Harris acknowledges past accomplishment by believers, but doesn't see that as proving much: "The fact that religious faith has left its mark on every aspect of our civilization is not an argument in its favor", after all. Indeed, he sees practically no arguments in favour of faith, finding that even the spiritual needs mankind apparently has can be better met elsewhere (something he feels obligated to address -- and also does too simply and hurriedly).
       The End of Faith tries to do a bit much, and occasionally is glib and cursory. While the extensive endnotes (over sixty pages) do offer additional information, some of the facts or examples on offer require more patient and closer explanation.
       One understands Harris' frustration with the prevalence and influence of something as far-fetched (indeed, ridiculous) as faith in what is found in the Bible or the Koran. But stating the obvious -- these are bad, bad ideas, leading people to do bad, bad things -- unfortunately doesn't really get you very far. Those who recognise religion for what it is -- literally: nonsense -- can nod in agreement and enjoy the fact that someone writes so freely about it. Those who have faith will shake their heads at how misguided poor Harris is, sad for him that he can't accept what to them is obvious; it seems extremely unlikely that this book could in any way shake their beliefs.
       Ironically, his warnings about tolerance and a moderate stance towards those with other (in this case non-sensical and -- most importantly -- dangerous) ideas and beliefs also play into the hands of critics, since those who embrace (or at least claim to) and preach tolerance can appear much more open-minded than Harris is willing to be on this point. (Harris, of course, maintains that being open-minded to the essentially insane is simply not a good idea, but given how religion is generally viewed this doesn't quite come across as well and sensibly as it should.)
       Harris cleverly presents what is a familiar argument in particularly pressing terms: faith has always been nonsense, he says, but it's time to be done with it for once and for all because it now poses such an incredible danger. But this, too, does not sound like a winning proposition. While faith seems to be waning in much of western Europe, America (and particularly its elected officials) continues to embrace it as firmly and fervently as ever. At best in the West, the idea that faith is at the root of so many problems is twisted into the much simpler their faith (i.e. Islam) is at the root of the problem -- and Harris plays into this to some extent with how he presents his argument. For now, most on the other side of this clash of civilizations are unwilling to denounce and abandon all faith, even their own; it's just the other guys that should -- and that's an argument that won't resolve anything.

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The End of Faith: Reviews: Sam Harris: Other books by Sam Harris under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Sam Harris is a neuroscience student.

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© 2005-2011 the complete review

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