The End of Faith by Sam Harris

Who has a patent on morality?
Who has a patent on morality?

In a publishing universe saturated with an onslaught of books arguing vociferously both for and against religion, Harris’s view stands out because it rails not just against God, but against faith itself. And not only against the faith of extremists, but that of religious moderates, who Harris snubs as unfaithful yet unwilling to abandon faith.

So-called moderates actually function, according to Harris, as padding for religious extremists, making the latter untouchable by the tenets of modern critical discourse. We live in a world where everything is debatable and deflatable except religious belief. Sam Harris asks why.

A belief, Harris argues, is “a lever that, once pulled, moves almost everything else in a person’s life.” Thus one who believes that 72 virgins await him in heaven if he murders a bunch of Israelis in a pizzeria is propelled by his belief to do what for a skeptic in his position would be unthinkable. Harris follows this logic to its natural conclusion, outlining many of the familiar proofs along the way: the inconsistency of scripture with itself, the incompatibility of “revealed religions” with each other in an increasingly volatile world, the societal evolution of morality and the pursuit of happiness as humankind’s ultimate goal.

Harris lets nobody off the hook, except perhaps the Jain, as they are extremists only in non-violent tendencies. Christianity and Islam are the primary culprits, as both are religions based on revelation, ultimate truth and the promise of heaven (and hell). Judaism receives a lighter treatment, partially due to its historical inability to inflict much damage on its self-declared taskmasters.

The writing throughout is precise, the book is well-sourced and the arguments are convincing. The last chapter examines whether spiritual experiences are attainable in ways divorced from dogma. Hint: read the footnotes.

Published in The American

Moral Blindness and the Perfect Weapon

A quote from Paul Berman:

“The anti-war Socialists wanted to understand their enemies and not just dismiss them–wanted to seek out whatever was comprehensible, the points on which everyone could agree. And so, listening to the Nazis make their wildest speeches, the anti-war Socialists, in a thoughtful mood, asked themselves: what is anti-Semitism, anyway? Does every single criticism of the Jews reflect the superstition of the Middle Ages? Surely it ought to be possible to criticize the Jews without being vilified as anti-Semites.” (Terror and Liberalism)

Of course, this meant underestimating Hitler and Nazism by assuming they clung to the same bedrock faith in human reason as the French Socialists. They wanted to give the Nazis a chance to be evaluated on equal footing, but the Nazis didn’t much care for an enlightened forum in which to test the strength of their ideas. They rest is history.

Not long after Berman published his book, which attempted to explain the roots of the Sept. 11, 2001 terroist attacks (and our general inability to comprehend their meaning), Sam Harris published a book called The End of Faith. In many ways, Harris built upon Berman’s thesis–and added a by-now-famous critique of religious faith that has made him as lionized by some as he is despised by others. Nestled in the pages of Harris’s book is a chapter called “Perfect Weapons and the Ethics of ‘Collateral Damage'”, which hasn’t received as much attention as it perhaps deserves. The crux of the argument is as follows:

“We need only imagine how any of our recent conflicts would have looked if we had possessed perfect weapons–weapons that allowed us to either temporarily impair or kill a particular person, or group, at any distance, without harming others or their property. What would we do with such technology?”

Of course, the temptation is to map out a mental chalkboard of conflicts, applying Harris’s perfect weapon hypothesis: how would the current war in Iraq look? The Iraq-Iran conflict? The recent IDF incursion in Gaza? The Second Intifada? Iran’s overtures to genocide and overarching support for suicide terrorism?

It’s a fun mental exercise. As Harris puts it, “A moment’s thought reveals that a person’s use of such a weapon would offer a perfect window onto the soul of his ethics.”

This could go on for a long while, so I’ll get to the point. Operation Cast Lead is long over. Recontruction in Gaza, including smuggling of weapons and construction of tunnels to Egypt, goes on unabated, except when Israel sends a few missiles in retaliation for the continuing rocket attacks. Caryl Churchill has written her Sophoclean dirge for the (Palestinian) victims that some have accused of the worst anti-Jewish stereotyping. Others call it a masterpiece. The victims are being counted, most of which (surprise, surprise) are Hamas men. But the world can’t wait to blame Israel for every single death in the recent conflict. After all, it was Israel that chose to retaliate with such force, unleashing the umpteenth episode of brutality against a starved, helpless population reduced to launching inexact, homemade rockets as their only recourse to dignity (now that suicide bombing has been more or less stalled, at least temporarily).

So, in this moment of relative calm and reflection, maybe we should be asking ourselves just what the IDF would have done in Gaza had it had perfect weapons. And Hamas? We should hold them both up to the same moral standard, or none at all.