Faith in the “War with Islam”

The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason by Sam Harris.  Norton, New York, 2004.  ISBN 0-393-03515-8. 336 pp.  Cloth $24.95.

Sam Harris’ The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason is unusual among books recently issued by mainline publishers in that it begins by rejecting all religious faiths — not just Islam or fundamentalist Christianity but ALL — as contrary to reason and detrimental to the human condition.  Thus far, your reviewer could read with enthusiastic agreement.  But unfortunately, after this strong opener, Harris’ book goes downhill as he develops four themes that become increasingly problematic and end by contradicting his starting assertion.  After having declared all religions irrational, divisive, and inciters of conflicts that threaten the destruction of civilization, Harris turns to a vitriolic and selective polemic against Islam.  This permeates the entire book.  His notion seems to be that Christianity passed through its bloody, repressive phase during the Middle Ages (as manifested by the Crusades, Inquisition, and similar  atrocities), but since then has been gentrified due to the benign influences of science, industrialization, and secularism in the West.  Islam, on the other hand — now at the apex of its repressive phase — becomes vastly more dangerous because of the availability of twenty-first century weapons of mass destruction.

Harris’ examples of irrational religious behavior are mostly Islamic, relating to suicide bombers and 9/11.  Thus his opening chapter, which describes the suicide bombing of an Israeli bus, locates irrationality solely on the Palestinian side, without noting that Israeli policy toward Palestinians may have had something to do with the event.  When he turns to religious irrationality in the United States, examples are drawn mainly from drug control and anti-abortion politics, which — important though they certainly are — carry less emotional impact than suicide bombings.  The result is to obscure the obvious reality that invasion of Iraq and the War Against Terror are driven by religious irrationalities, cultivated and conceded to, at high policy levels in the US, which are at least comparable to the irrationality of Islamic crusaders and jihadists.  “Any honest witness to current events,” Harris writes, “will realize that there is no moral equivalence between the kind of force civilized democracies project in the world, warts and all, and the internecine violence that is perpetuated by Muslim militants, or indeed by Muslim governments” (146).  This assertion may be difficult to swallow for an “honest witness” old enough to remember Hiroshima/Nagasaki, the Bay of Pigs, Vietnam, Chile, Nicaragua, and all the rest; not to mention the “morality” of withholding crucial evidence about weapons of mass destruction prior to the invasion of Iraq. 

Harris offers no criticism of the war in Iraq, and in fact vindicates it as an essential part in a new crusade that reaches far beyond simply the repression of terrorists.  “We are at war with Islam. . . . We are at war with precisely the vision of life that is prescribed to all Muslims in the Koran . . .” (109).  He goes so far as to justify torture in the interrogation of prisoners  — citing Alan Dershowitz of the Harvard Law School — who (it so happens) appears as one of three blurb-ists on the back jacket of the book.  Interwoven into Harris’ main argument are sarcastic references to Edward Said, denunciations of Ghandian pacifism, and a ferocious 5-page assault on Noam Chomsky.

Abruptly, however, in the next-to-last chapter, the author moves to a more exalted level of consciousness: “At the core of every religion lies an undeniable claim about the human condition: [that] it is possible to have one’s experience of the world radically transformed.”  Conceding that it may be “difficult to find a word” for these transformations, he nonetheless does find such a word — indeed two words: “spirituality” and “mysticism”  — which he says can now be used interchangeably (204-5).  Is this a shortcut back to religion?  “[T]he truth is that we simply do not know what happens after death . . . . the place of consciousness in the natural world is very much an open question.  The idea that brains produce consciousness is little more than an article of faith among scientists at present, and there are many reasons to believe that the methods of science will be insufficient to either prove or disprove it” (208).  So if brains do not produce consciousness, maybe consciousness might be some sort of cosmic force beyond any individual subjectivity?  Where have we heard that before?

By the time he gets to his last chapter, Harris is into a fairly conventional exposition of Tibetan Buddhism and theories and practice of meditation, yet continues to insist that these have nothing to do with religion.  “The mystic has reasons for what he believes and these reasons are empirical.  The roiling mystery of the world can be analyzed with concepts (this is science), or it can be experienced free of concepts (this is mysticism)” (221).  Nowhere in the entire work is there a definition of religion, nor any theory of how religion works in cultural evolution.  In the index, Harris promises a definition of “spirituality,” but the designated pages contain nothing resembling such a definition; and the index entry under “mysticism” says simply, “see spirituality.”

The End of Faith is an intensely-written and at times compelling book.  Its ideological thrust is a projection of Western imperialist visions, although Harris avoids any such claims.  The constituency apparently aimed at — which we can expect to be increasing numerically on both shores of the (North) Atlantic — is that younger, computer-educated, affluent (or aspirant) set, doing well (or hoping to do so) in the information age, who style themselves secular realists, yet remain awash in virtual spiritualities.  Such folk might be expected to feel some uneasiness at collaborating with religious fundamentalists of the Bush-Republican type.  Harris rather subtly invites them to focus their transcendental hopes on the global — and neo-liberal — free market upon which our upcoming World Order (presumably) will be based . . . but only after the cleansing “war with Islam” has been brought to satisfactory conclusion.

Alexander Saxton is emeritus professor of history at UCLA.  He is the author of three novels and several historical works, including The Rise and Fall of the White Republic: Class Politics and Mass Culture in Nineteenth-Century America.  His new book, Religion and the Human Prospect, was published by Monthly Review Press this year.  This review also appears in the latest issue of Science & Society.

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