End of Faith: Religion and Reason

Below is a review I wrote for my high school paper

I have the upper hand by reviewing The End of Faith by Sam Harris after Jeremy Avins (’06) wrote about it in Issue 2 of the Devil’s Advocate, as well as skimming various reviews in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and San Francisco Chronicle. Moreover, I have no explicit goals or baggage, such as bolstering the foundation of my own faith. Instead, I read End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason as a high school kid who is agnostic at best, maybe Buddhist, and more likely just confused. I am confused about why wars have been fought all over the world over this thing called religion. I am confused about what spirituality really means. I am finally unable to effectively describe the interchange that exists today between science and religion.

Those disclaimers out of the way, I devoured Harris’ book, with all of its imperfections, and came away with more questions than answers, a disappointing outcome for Harris I would guess since he so vigorously argues his points and attempts to close the door on alternate viewpoints.

At its best, End of Faith offers an intelligent critique of the intersection of beliefs, rationality, and science, and how those influences affect us every day. He is particularly on-the-ball when discussing the new trend of “religious moderation.” Instead of excepting moderates from his blistering attack on fundamentalism, he is even more harsh on their movement, which has blossomed because the Enlightenment, advances in science, and increasing reliance on reason and evidence to fuel society, have in combination chipped away at many tenets of religion.

Harris derails slightly when he attempts to cite various passages from various religious texts as evidence that the religions do not accept (and in some cases advocate killing) non-believers. Avins astutely highlighted contradictory passages from Jewish texts encouraging peace. This is my point. It is easy to close one eye, as Avins does, and read only the parts of the text that fit modern, rational thinking. Or, as Harris does, to discover parts of Islam that are surprisingly violent and conclude that anti-Semitism is intrinsic to the belief. Harris also swims in treacherous waters when he tries to empirically prove that religion is irrational. All his examples have a contradiction or a way to disprove his assertion. But when he arrives at God, Harris seems to just be frustrated that, as Avins says, there is no way to prove that God does not exist. Nonetheless, his line of logic makes more sense than Avins’ reasoning. Avins says, in essence, that early humans could not find any other way to explain things so they credited a higher being. This may prove that it is human nature to want to understand and explain everything, but it certainly does not by default make it rational.

The book finally offers an interesting perspective on President Bush’s faith-based initiatives, the “myth” that religion strengthens communities (surely debatable), and why talk on religion is taboo in today’s culture. Alas, Harris’ versatility also leads to seemingly directionless meandering, as he ventures into abstract philosophy, consciousness, and neuroscience. By the end, I wish he would have devoted those energies on further discussion of the mortality argument (can we humans just not accept that life will end?) instead of showing off his wide-reaching intellect. But my sense is that any well-documented effort like Harris’ can be heralded as a success if it prompts the reader to dig deeper, keep reading, and keep answering millennium-old questions with more questions.

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