Monday, December 19, 2005

(**) The End of Faith by Sam Harris

Being areligious and a skeptic, I’m already totally unfaithful (as most of my friends are fond of saying!), so this book really didn’t change my outlook on much. If , however, you are faithful, and consider yourself as a citizen of the 21st century possessing an open mind, then you will really have some things to think about it after reading this. The book has some very persuasive arguments and thoughts, and is an indictment on faith in all of its forms. Just in time for Christmas!

Respect for other faiths or for the views of non-believers is not an attitude that God endorses… The central tenet of every religious tradition is that all others are mere repositories of error or, at best, dangerously incomplete. Intolerance is thus intrinsic to every creed. Once a person believes – really believes – that certain ideas can lead to eternal happiness, or to its antithesis, he cannot tolerate the possibility that the people he loves might be led astray by the blandishments of unbelievers. Certainly about the next life is simply incompatible with tolerance in this one. P13

As long as a Christian believes that only his baptized brethren will be saved on the Day of Judgment, he cannot possibly respect the beliefs of others, for he knows that the flames of hell have been stoked by these very ideas and await their adherents even now. Muslims and Jews generally take the same arrogant view of their own enterprises and have spent millennia passionately reiterating the errors of other faiths. P15

The doctrines of modern religions are no more tenable than those which, for lack of adherents, were cast upon the scrap heap of mythology millennia ago; for there is no more evidence to justify a belief in the literal existence of Yahweh or Satan than there was to keep Zeus perched upon his mountain throne or Poseidon churning the seas. P16

35% of Americans believe that the Bible is the literal and inerrant word of the Creator of the universe. Another 48% believe that it is the inspired word of the same – still inerrant, though of its passages must be interpreted symbolically before their truth can be brought to light. Only 17% of us remain to doubt that a personal God, in his infinite wisdom, is likely to have authored this text… Some 46% of Americans take a literalist view of creation. This means that 120 million of us place the big bang 2,500 years after the Babylonians and Sumerians learned to brew beer. P17

Moderates of every faith are obliged to loosely interpret or simply ignore much of their canons in the interests of living in the modern world. No doubt an obscure truth of economics is at work here: societies appear to become considerably less productive whenever large numbers of people stop making widgets and begin killing their customers and creditors for heresy. P17

One look at Deuteronomy reveals that God has something very specific in mind should your daughter return from yoga class advocating worship of Krishna: ‘If your brother, son, daughter, or spouse, or your most intimate friend, tries to secretly seduce you, saying ‘Let us go and serve other gods’, unknown to you and your ancestors before you, gods of the people surrounding you, anywhere throughout the world, you must not consent, you must not listen to him; you must show him no pity, you must not spare him or conceal his guilt. No, you must kill him, your hand must strike the first blow in putting him to death. You must stone him to death since he has tried to divert you from Yahweh your God… Deuteronomy 13:7-11’ p18

Tell a devout Christian that his wife is cheating on him, or that yogurt can make a man invisible, and he is likely to require as much evidence as anyone else, and to be persuaded only to the extent that you give it. Tell him that the book he keeps by his bed was written by an invisible deity who will punish him with fire for eternity if he fails to accepts its every incredible claim about the universe and he seems to require no evidence whatsoever. P19

From those seeking to live by the letter of the texts, the religious moderate is nothing more than a failed fundamentalist. He is, in all likelihood, going to wind up in hell with the rest of the unbelievers. The problem that religious moderation poses for all of us is that it does not permit anything critical to be said about religious literalism. The moderates can’t say that fundamentalists are crazy, because they are merely practicing their freedom of belief; they can’t even say that they are mistaken in religious terms, because their knowledge of scripture is generally unrivaled. All they can say is that they don’t like the personal and social costs that a full embrace of scripture imposes on them. P20

Imagine that we could revive a well educated Christian of the 14th century. The man would prove to be a total ignoramus, except on matters of faith. His beliefs about geography, astronomy, and medicine would embarrass even a child, but he would know more or less everything there is to know about God… There are 2 explanations for this: either we perfected our religious understanding of the world a millennium ago – while our knowledge on all other fronts was hopelessly inchoate – or religion, being the mere maintenance of dogma, is one area of discourse that doesn’t admit progress… If religion addresses a genuine sphere of understanding and human necessity, then it should be susceptible to progress; its doctrines should become more useful, rather than less. Progress in religion, as in other fields, would have to be a matter of present inquiry, not the mere reiteration of past doctrine. P22

What if all our knowledge of the world were suddenly to disappear? Our books and computers are still here, but we can’t make heads or tails of their contents. We have even forgotten how to drive our cars and brush our teeth. What knowledge would we want to reclaim first? Well, there’s that business about growing food and building shelter that we would want to get reacquainted with. We would want to relearn how to use and repair many of our machines. Learning to understand spoken and written language would also be a top priority. When in this process of reclaiming our humanity will it be important to know that Jesus was born of a virgin? Or that he was resurrected? And how would we relearn these ‘truths’, if they are indeed true? By reading the Bible? Our tour of the shelves will deliver similar pearls from antiquity… Whom shall we give top billing in our resurrected world? Yahweh or Shiva?… And what will we think of those curious people who being proclaiming that one of our books is distinct from all others in that it was actually written by the Creator?… The point is most of what we currently hold sacred is not sacred for any reason other than that it was thought sacred yesterday. Surely, if we could create the world anew, the practice of organizing our lives around untestable propositions found in ancient literature – to say nothing of killing and dying for them – would be impossible to justify. What stops us from finding it impossible now? P24
This is a priceless gem. Harris needs to extend the argument a bit further to nail the point conclusively. In relearning all that we have lost, we will rediscover the truths of the universe – gravity, electromagnetism, DNA, nuclear physics, etc. Why? Because these things are true in all places and at all times. We will not however relearn the same religions because they are not ‘truths’ that are universal – true in all places at all times. They are not even history in the sense that that they can be pieced together from existing archaelogical evidence.

Young women were stripped and raped in broad daylight, then set on fire… A pregnant woman’s belly was slit open, her fetus raised skyward on the tip of a sword and then tossed onto one of the fires that blazed across the city. This is not an account of the Middle Ages… It is from the winter of 2002 and describes violence between Indian Hindus and Muslims. P27

Economic advantages and education, in and of themselves, are insufficient remedies for the causes of religious violence. If a person believes that the eternal happiness of his children is put in peril by the mere presence of unbelievers in the world, and if such people happen to be making the policies under which he and his children must live, the potential for violence imposed by his beliefs seems unlikely to dissipate. P32

Imagine a future where our descendants murder each other over rival interpretations of Star Wars or Windows 98. Could anything – anything – be more ridiculous? And yet, this would be no more ridiculous than the world we are living in. p36

In our next presidential election, an actor who reads the Bible would almost certainly defeat a rocket scientist who does not. Could there be any clearer indication that we are allowing unreason and otherworldliness to govern our affairs? P39

The Bible, it seems certain, was the work of sand strewn men and women who though the earth was flat and for whom the wheelbarrow would have been a breathtaking example of emerging technology. To rely on such a document as the basis for our worldview is to repudiate 2000 years of civilizing insights… p45

In 2002, the religious police of Mecca prevented paramedics and firefighters from rescuing scores of teenage girls trapped in a burning buildling. Why? Because the girls were not wearing the traditional head covering that Koranic law requires. 14 girls died, and 50 were injured and disfigured permanently. P46

Physicist Martin Rees “We are entering an era where a single person can, by one clandestine act, cause millions of deaths or render a city uninhabitable for years…” Given the power of our technology we can see at a glance that aspiring matyrs will not make good neighbors in the future. We have simply lost the right to our myths and to our mythic identities. P48

Let’s say that I believe God exists, and some impertinent person asks me ‘Why?’. This question invites – indeed, demands – an answer of the form ‘I believe God exists because…’ I can’t say ‘I believe God exists because it is prudent to do so’ (as Pascal did). Nor can I say things like ‘I believe in God because it makes me feel good.’ The fact that I would feel good if there was a God does not give me the slightest reason to believe that one exists… To believe that God exists is to believe that I stand in some relation to his existence such that his existence is itself the reason for my belief… In this way, religious beliefs, to be beliefs about the way the world is, must be evidentiary in spirit as any other… As long as religious propositions purport to be about the way the world is – God can actually hear your prayers – they must stand in relation to the world, and to our other beliefs about it. P63

If a little supportive evidence emerges, the faithful prove as attentive to data as the damned. This demonstrates that faith is nothing more than a willingness to await evidence. It is the search for knowledge on the installment plan: believe now, live an untestable hypothesis until your dying day, and you will [may] discover that you were right [or wrong]. But in any other sphere of life, a belief is a check that everyone insists upon cashing this side of the grave… Religious beliefs are not born of any examination of the world, or the world of their experience. They are in Karl Popper’s sense ‘unfalsifiable’. P66

It appears that even the Holocaust did not lead most Jews to doubt the existence of an omnipotent and benevolent God. If having ½ your people systematically delivered to the furnace does not count as evidence against the notion that an all powerful God is looking out for your interests, it seems reasonable that nothing could. P67

How does the mullah know that the Koran is the verbatim word of God? The only answer to be given in any language that does not make a mockery of the word ‘know’ is – he doesn’t. p67

Pentecostals belief: In an effort to demonstrate both their faith in the literal word of the Bible and its truth, they take up serpents (see Mark 16:18) and drink any deadly thing (generally strychnine) and test prophecy (it shall not hurt them) to their heart’s content. Some of them die in the process of course, as did their founder (snake bite) – proof we can be sure, not of the weakness of their faith, but of the efficacy of rattlesnake poison. P69

It takes a certain kind of person to believe what no one else believes. To be ruled by ideas for which you have no evidence is generally a sign that something is seriously wrong with your mind. Clearly there is sanity in numbers… And so, while religious people are not generally mad, their core beliefs absolutely are… This leaves billions of us believing what no sane person could believe on his own. P72

We could imagine a scenario in which we would credence to the pope’s visions (or to our own). If Jesus came saying things like ‘The Vatican Library has exactly 37,226 books’ and he turned out to be right, we would then begin to feel that we were, at the very least, in dialog with someone who had something to say about the way the world is. Given a sufficient number of verifiable statements, plucked from the ethers of papal vision, we could begin speaking seriously about any further claims Jesus might make. P77

[Upgrading your furniture. Consider the Spanish Chair, circa 1400 from the Inquisition Collection]: You may be bound to a bench, with a cauldron filled with mice placed upsidedown upon your bare addomen. With the requisite application of heat to the iron, the mice will being to burrow into your belly in search of an exit. P80 [Mice are sold separately.]

Whenever a man imagines that he need only believe the truth of a proposition, without evidence – that unbelievers will go to hell - he become capable of anything. P85

The men of the Fore tribe [of New Guinea] hunted down men they believed to be sorcerers and killed them in reprisal. The hunters used a specialized attack; they ruptured their kidneys, crushed their genitals, broke their thigh bones with stone axes, bit into their necks, tore out their tracheas, jammed bamboo splinters into their veins to bleed them.
The horrible comedy of ignorance achieves a rare moment of transparency: the Fore were merely responding to an epidemic of Kuru – a fatal brain infection – brought on not by sorcery but by their own religious observance of eating the bodies and brains of their dead. P89 [Um, are you going to finish that?]

The Catholic church did not officially condemn the use of torture [and inquisition] until the bull of Pope Pius VII in 1816. p92 Better late than never.

There is no telling what our world would be like had some great kingdom of Reason emerged at the time of the Crusades and pacified the credulous multitudes of Europe and the Middle East. We might have had modern democracy and the Internet by 1600. p109

The penalty for apostasy [changing your religion in this case from Islam] is death. We would do well to linger over this fact for a moment, because it is the black pearl of intolerance that no liberal exegesis will every fully digest. Within the house of Islam, the penalty for learning too much about the world is death. If a 21st century Muslim loses his faith, though he may have been a Muslim for only a single hour, the normative response, everywhere under Islam is to kill him… This explains why there did not appear to be a single reasonable Muslim living on Earth when Khomeni put a bounty on the head of Salmon Rushdie. P116

Islam, more than any other religion human beings have devised, has all the markings of a thoroughgoing cult of death. P123

At this point in history, give most Muslims the freedom to vote, and they will freely vote to tear out their political freedoms by the root. We should not for a moment lose sight of the possibility that they would curtail our freedoms as well, if they only had the power to do so. P132

Ask yourself, what are the chances that the Palestinians would show the same restraint in killing Jews if the Jews were a powerless minority living under their occupation and disposed to acts of suicidal terrorism? It would be no more likely than Muhammad’s flying to heaven on a winged horse. P135

Not all societies have the same degree of moral wealth. Many things contribute to such an endowment. Political and economic stability, literacy, a modicum of social equality – where such things are lacking, people tend to find many compelling reasons to treat one another rather badly… To say of another culture that it lags a 150 years behind our own in social development is a terrible criticism indeed, given how far we’ve come in that time. Now imagine the benighted Americans of 1863 coming to possess chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons. This is more or less the situation we confront in much of the developing world. P144

Nothing in Noam Chomsky’s account acknowledges the difference between intending to kill a child and inadvertently killing a child in an attempt to capture or kill an avowed child murderer. In both cases a child has died, and in both cases it is a tragedy. But the ethical status of the perpetrators could hardly be more distinct. P146

The ability to pull money straight out of the ground has led Arab governments to be entirely unresponsive to the concerns of their people. Not needing to collect taxes is highly corrupting of state power. ‘If there is one great cause of the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, it is the total failure of political institutions in the Arab world.’ Perhaps, but the rise of Islamic fundamentalism is only a problem because the fundamentals of Islam are a problem. A rise of Jain fundamentalism would endanger no one. P148

We should look upon modern despotism as hostage crises. Kim Jong Il has 30M hostages. Saddam had 25M. The clerics in Iran have 70M more. It doesn’t matter that many hostages have been so brainwashed that they will fight their would-be liberators to the death. They are held prisoner twice over – by tyranny and by their own ignorance. The developed world must come to their rescue. P151

Fundamental Christians support Israel because they believe that the rebuilding of Solomon’s temple – will usher in both the Second Coming and the final destruction of the Jews. P153

[Be afraid, very afraid.] The more Christian a country is the less likely it is to regard the death penalty as immoral… I attribute that to the fact that, for the believing Christian, death is no big deal. Intentionally killing an innocent person is a big deal: it is a grave sin, which causes one to lose his soul. But losing this life, in exchange for the next?… For the non-believer, on the the other hand, to deprive a man of his life is to end his existence. What a horrible act!.. The governement carries the sword as the ‘Minister of God’ to ‘execute wrath’ upon the evildoer. – Your honorable Justice of the United States Supreme Court – Antonin Scalia p157

Scalia supports the use of capital punishment even in cases where the defendant is acknowledged to be mentally retarded. He also upholds the state sodomy laws. P158
Oral and anal sex between consenting adults remains a criminal offense in 13 states. 4 of these prohibit these acts between same sex couples, and therefore prohibit homosexuality. The other 9 ban these acts for everyone. P160

The total cost of our drug laws – including the loss of potential tax revenue by failing to regulate the sale – could easily be in excess of $100 billion each year. Our war on drugs consumes an estimated 50% of the trial time of our courts and full time energies of over 400,000 police officers. These are resources that might otherwise be used to fight violent crime and terrorism. P163

Anyone who believes God is watching us from beyond the stars will feel that punishing peaceful men and women for their private pleasures is perfectly reasonable… Our war on sin is so outrageously unwise as to almost defy rational comment. How have we grown so blind to our deeper interests? And how have we managed to enact such policies with so little substantive debate? [I’ll tell you how, just the same way the Patriot act got passed. That’s how.] p164

We now find ourselves living in a world in which college educated politicians will hurl impediments in the way of research because they are concerned with the fate of a single cell… They believe that even a human zygote should be accorded all the protections of a fully developed human being. Such a cell, after all, has the potential to become a fully developed human being. But given our advances in biology and cloning, as much can be said of almost every cell in the human body. By the measure of a cell’s potential, whenever the president scratches his nose he is now engaged in a diabolical culling of souls. P166

Of course the point of which we fully acquire our humanity, our capacity to suffer, remains open to question. But anyone who would dogmatically insist that these traits must arise coincident with the moment of conception has nothing to contribute, apart from his ignorance, to this debate. P167

One of the greatest sources of pleasure in 16th century Paris was cat burning. They would gather dozens of cats in a net, hoist them high into the air from a special bundle onto a bonfire. The assembled spectators ‘shrieked with laughter as the animals, howling with pain, were singed, roasted, and finally carbonized.’ P170

The fact that our ethical intuitions have their roots in biology reveals that our efforts to ground ethics in religious conceptions of ‘moral duty’ are misguided… We simply do not need religious ideas to motivate us to live ethical lives. Once we begin thinking seriously about happiness and suffering, we find that our religious traditions are no more reliable on questions of ethics than they have been on scientific questions generally. P172 [Read The Moral Animal by Robert Wright if you care to disagree with this statement.]

The anthropocentrism that is intrinsic to every faith can’t help appearing impossibly quaint – and therefore impossible – given what we know about the natural world. Biological truths are simply not commensurate with a designer God, or even a good one. The perverse wonder of evolution is this: the very mechanisms that create beauty and diversity guarantee monstrosity and death… It is worth remembering that if God created the world and all things in it, he created smallpox, plague, filariasis. Any person who intentionally loosed such horrors upon the earth would be ground to dust for this crimes. P172

The notion of moral community resolves many paradoxes of human behavior. How is it, after all, that a Nazi guard could return each day from his labors at the crematoria and be a loving father to his children? The answer is surprisingly straightforward: the Jews he spent the day with torturing and killing were not objects of his moral concern… As we have seen, religion is one of the great limiters of moral identity, since most believers differentiate themselves, in moral terms, from those who do not share their faith. P176

What will be our criterion for humanness? DNA? Shall a single cell take precedence over a herd of elephants?… If people are more important to us than Orangutans because they can articulate their interests, why aren’t more articulate people more important still? And what about those people with aphasia? It would seem that we have just excluded them from our moral community. Find an orangutan that can complain about his family in Borneo, and he may well displace a person or two from our lifeboat. P178

No one is ever really right about what he believes; he can only point to a community of peers who believe likewise… Convictions of this sort go by the name of ‘relativism’… There is a more sophisticated version of this line of thinking that is not so easily dispatched. It generally goes by the name of pragmatism… The pragmatist’s basic premise is that, try as we might, the currency of our ideas can’t be placed on the gold std of correspondence with reality as it is… Beliefs are simply tools for making one’s way in the world… For the pragmatist, the utility of a belief trumps all other concerns, even the concern for coherence. If a literal reading of the Bible works for you on Sunday, while agnosticism is better suited to Mondays at the office, there is no reason to about the resulting contradictions in your worldview. P179

In philosophical terms, pragmatism can be directly opposed to realism. For the realist, our statements about the world will be true or false not merely in virtue of how they function amid the welter of our other beliefs, but because reality simply is a certain way, independent of our thoughts… To be an ethical realist [and you know who you are] is to believe that in ethics, as in physics, there are truths waiting to be discovered – and thus we can be right or wrong in our beliefs about them. P181

It is quite conceivable that everyone might agree and yet be wrong about the way the world is. It is also conceivable that a single person might be right in the face of unanimous opposition. From a realist point of view, it is possible for a single person to have a monopoly on the truth. P182

Many of our deliverances of reason don’t seem reasonable at 1st glance. When asked how thick a piece of newspaper would be if one could fold it upon itself 100 times, most of us imagine something about the thickness of a brick. A little arithmetic reveals that such an object would be as thick as the known universe. P183

From the point of view of evolution, the best thing a person can do with his life is have as many children as possible. As Stephen Pinker observes, if we really took a gene’s eye view of the world “men would line up outside sperm banks and women would pray to have their eggs harvested and given to infertile couples.” P186

It appears that such restraint in the use of torture can’t be reconciled with our willingness to wage war in the 1st place. What after all is collateral damage but the inadvertent torture of innocent men, women, and children? …It is curious that the torture of Osama Bin Laden himself could be expected to provoke convulsions of conscience among our leaders, the unintended but perfectly foreseeable, and therefore accepted, slaughter of children does not… Its seems obvious that the misapplication of torture should be far less troubling to us than collateral damage: there are, after all, no infants interned at Guantanamo Bay. P194

A biological rationale is not hard to find [for why we are squeamish or reluctant to kill someone up close and personal, but killing in en masse doesn’t provoke such a response], as millions of years on the African veldt could not possibly have selected for an ability to make emotional sense of 21st century horror. P195

If you think that the equivalence between torture and collateral damage does not hold, because torture is up close and personal while stray bombs aren’t, you stand convicted on a failure of imagination on at least 2 counts: The disparity of the dissociation between what is most harmful and what is most shocking. Killing people at a distance is easier, but perhaps it should not be that much easier. Second, imagine an ideal ‘torture pill’. A drug that would deliver both the instruments of torture and the instrument of their utter concealment. The action of the pill would be to produce transitory paralysis and transitory misery of a kind no human being would willingly submit to a 2nd time. Imagine how we torturers would feel if, after giving this pill to captive terrorists, each lay down for what appeared to be an hour’s nap only to arise and immediately confess everything he knows about the workings of his organization. Might we not call it a truth pill in the end? P197

The full moon appearing on the horizon is no bigger than the full moon when it appears overhead, but it looks bigger, for reasons that are still obscure to neuroscientists. P200

Gandhi’s nonviolence can be applied only to limited range of human conflict. We would do well to reflect on Gandhi’s remedy for the Holocaust : he believed Jews should have committed mass suicide. P202

The problem with religion is that it blends the truth so thoroughly with the venom of unreason. Take Christianity as an example: it is not enough that Jesus was a man who transformed himself to such a degree that the Sermon on the Mount could be his heart’s confession. He also had to be the Son of God, born of a virgin, and destined to return to earth trailing clouds of glory. The effect of such dogma is to place the example of Jesus forever out of reach. His teaching ceases to be a set of empirical claims about the linkage between ethics and spiritual insight and instead becomes a gratuitous, and rather gruesome, fairy tale. P204

What could possibly cause billions of human beings to reconsider their religious beliefs? And yet it is obvious that an utter revolution in our thinking could be accomplished in a single generation: if parents and teachers would merely give honest answers to the questions of every child. P224

Consider it: every person you have ever met, every person you will pass on the street today, is going to die. Living long enough, each will suffer the loss of his friends and family. All are going to lose everything they love in this world. Why would anyone want to be anything but kind to them in the meantime? P226

The universe is shot through with mystery. The very fact of its being, and of our own, is a mystery absolute, and the only miracle worthy of the name… No myths need be embraced for us to commune with the profundity of our circumstance. No personal God need be worshiped for us to live in awe at the beauty and immensity of creation… The days of our religious identities are clearly numbered. Whether the days of civilization itself are numbered would seem to depend, rather too much on how soon we realize this. P227

As Bertrand Russell observed, even if we were to grant that one of our religions must be correct in its every particular, given the number of conflicting views on offer, every believer should expect damnation on mere probabilistic grounds. P233

For a remarkably elegant demonstration of the incoherency of the Bible, I recommend Burr’s Self Contradictions of the Bible (1860). In it, Burr presents 144 propositions – all neatly opposed by their antithesis: God is seen and heard/God is invisible and cannot be heard, etc. – all with supporting quotations. P244


al fin said...

And yet, where is this book being published? In christian countries, or countries with a christian history. Would a similar book taking this type of approach to Islam be published in a muslim country? Off with your head!

There is very little perspective when it comes to a person's pet causes.

There is not a choice, really, between christian, or enlightened secular. The social sphere abhors a philosophical vacuum. There are much worse forces than christianity waiting in the wings to make things much worse for intellectual freedom in the western world.

Pointing out the ridiculous aspects of christianity is fair game. Pretending that christian belief is a mortal threat to all mankind is absurd, and a posture that makes the book sound rather absurd.

slawy said...

Combine extremist Muslims with the Jesus Camp generation of Christians, and serious nuclear wars don't sound that far off.