The End of Faith by Sam Harris

Read: 4 April, 2010

After years of being told that I absolutely had to read The End of Faith and seeing Harris’s TED presentation on universal morality, I finally took the plunge and bought a copy.

The book is divided into two distinct parts: the first is what doesn’t work, and the second is what Harris believes will work. What doesn’t work is, of course, religion. This part reads like must other Atheist books that have come out in recent years. Harris devotes a portion to each major religion, a little different than some books, perhaps, in that he addresses the Eastern religions as well. Of course, his focus is on the two major troublemakers of recent year, Christianity and Islam. The chapter on Islam includes four pages of Quranic quotes that are racist, anti-tolerance, anti-apostate, xenophobic, etc. That alone makes this book a valuable addition to a debater’s bookshelf!

The second portion deals with spirituality, and a way to integrate spirituality with Atheism. Harris is a proponent of meditation. Unfortunately, many of his assumptions regarding the workings of the brain run contrary to what I’ve learned, some making rather strange leaps of logic and some being downright silly. Harris seems to lose his credulity in his search for “something more.” That being said, I can appreciate what he’s trying to do even if I don’t agree with him (or think he’s gone loony).

He also has the nasty habit of dropping bombs without any explanation. He’s presumably writing for a sceptical audience, so it seems strange that he wouldn’t devote a bit more time to explaining the concepts that would set off sceptical alarm bells. For example, he says that “there also seems to be a body of data attesting to the reality of psychic phenomena, much of which has been ignored by mainstream science” (p. 41). This particular bomb is dropped without examples or explanation, just a list of book titles in the end notes (obscure books that neither my library nor my university has ever heard of).

There were some historical inaccuracies that bugged me. For example, he refers to Isis as “the goddess of fertility, [who] sports an impressive pair of cow horns.” Well, I’ve never seen Isis with cow horns. Her symbol was a throne with an egg on top. The cow horns belonged to Hathor. These sorts of little details really pulled me out of the book and made me wonder how much else he may have gotten wrong.

Despite some carelessness and strange choices, it’s a worthwhile read. I do appreciate that he attempts to ‘fill the gap’ after dismantling religion, and I would like to see more of this in the mainstream Atheist discourse. I simply don’t see his replacement as being any more rational than that which he seeks to replace.

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