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The Contemptuous Caricature of Faith | Rev. Brian Van Hove, S.J. | A Review-Commentary on The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason by Sam Harris | Ignatius Insight

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Editor's note: This review of The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2004) originally appeared in a slightly different form in The Fellowship of Catholic Scholars Quarterly, vol. 28, no. 3 (Fall 2005): 30-32. While Harris's book is now a few years old, the ideas and argumentation in it are even more widespread and commonplace today. Fr. Van Hove's incisive review highlights several of the serious problems with Harris' "facts" and approach, providing a pithy apologetic for Catholicism against the so-called "new atheism".

Mr. Sam Harris (www.samharris.org) wrote a new book about something old. In the long history of philosophy we have encountered his thesis before. His is a naďve enthusiasm for the power of reason and rational verification, which really means that he has rediscovered the 18th century and its Age of Reason. Perhaps as an undergraduate he never read William Barrett's Irrational Man.

Does the author appreciate light to the exclusion of heat?—after all, love is famously irrational. But for Sam Harris, love is a pleasurable state of mind (189). He picks the "happiness and suffering" of sentient beings to ground his rationalist ethics, which he calls "realist ethics", but "happiness and suffering" are described materialistically (171). "Reason is nothing less than the guardian of love" (190).

Harris advocates something akin to a Neo-Enlightenment. His skepticism about any truth outside the mind and reason, narrowly conceived, is used to dismantle the architecture of our historic Western worldview (Jewish, Christian, and Muslim), yet he offers nothing in replacement except Buddhist meditation (288 n. 16) and old-fashioned rationalism updated by neuroscience. "How can we encourage other human beings to extend their moral sympathies beyond a narrow locus? How can we learn to be mere human beings, shorn of any more compelling national, ethnic, or religious identity? We can be reasonable" (190). The End of Faith is his first book, and it is short—227 pages of text and 62 pages of notes.

The End of Faith is a caricature of organized Western religion and faith. He says "Our enemy is nothing other than faith itself" (131). And again "Indeed, we know enough at this moment to say that the God of Abraham is not only unworthy of the immensity of creation; he is unworthy even of man" (226). The tone of the book is contemptuous in the extreme. Harris's work rejects the contribution of Western-inspired (= Semitic) world religions to civilization and to our times. For the author, religion is a liability, political and social. His philosophical materialism has drawn him to work on a doctorate in neuroscience. He thinks anything that was good in religion can be found elsewhere. He thinks mystical states and religious impulses are located in the brain, not in a transcendent "totaliter aliter." Hence his admiration for Buddhism and other Asian non-dualist systems of consciousness training (215-216; 283 n. 12). Now he is studying belief, disbelief, and uncertainty by way of fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging).

Harris claims that intuition is a respectable first step for the inquirer en route to realism grounded in scientific truth, and so he rejects the position of relativists and pragmatists and pluralists who can never get to certitude. There is here a relationship with 19th century mechanism, determinism, and the "inevitable laws of history". He accepts a materialist conception of certitude in the philosophy of science, while explaining that he has spent many years practicing Eastern meditation (283 n. 12).

Harris has a practical agenda. He thinks that, unless we coherently apply reason to all human endeavor, including ethics, we will be destroyed. Surely this is noble. Harris is looking out for you and me. He believes that the threat from Islam is of the greatest urgency, and that there is likelihood it will go nuclear. Readers can assume Harris's opposition to orthodox Jews, Muslims, or Christians. But what comes as a surprise is his withering attack upon the moderates and the liberals among them—indeed, quite a surprise. This book is implicitly more against the Küngs and the Bultmanns (although he seems to write approvingly of Paul Tillich) than it is against the Grand Ayatollah or the pope who are, for him, obviously indefensible. Although he would not like to welcome back the Christians of the 14th century, he thinks their revisionist heirs are the ones who keep propping up the unjustified myths and unprovable assertions of outdated biblical religion. He says "We will see that the greatest problem confronting civilization is not merely religious extremism: rather, it is the larger set of cultural and intellectual accommodations we have made to faith itself. Religious moderates are, in large part, responsible for the religious conflict in our world, because their beliefs provide the context in which scriptural literalism and religious violence can never be adequately opposed" (45).

The End of Faith is studded with the usual examples to illustrate his thesis. The discussion of the Paris Plague of June 1348 A.D. would interest Catholics (70-71), and even more so his portrayal of the Mass (72-73). He likes to refer to the Holy Eucharist as "a cracker". The Mass is one of the best examples he can find of a preposterous belief. He quotes, without source or exact reference, "The Roman Profession of Faith of the Roman Catholic Church" to show what he means (241 n. 30).

However, when it comes to the Inquisition and the Holocaust, he admits that he has treated these thorny subjects cursorily, and he refers readers to some literature on these subjects (107)—without giving them any authors who might disagree with him. None of the best historians of the inquisitions are cited (Kamen, Peters, Shannon, Netanyahu), even though they are well published and they may have some pretty sympathetic things to say about the church. For the Holocaust, he relies on Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, for one, but never mentions Rabbi David G. Dalin or Father Neuhaus. Harris is blissfully innocent of the serious criticism Goldhagen received from Richard John Neuhaus in First Things. Harris refers to Pacelli as "Pious XII" and on the same page (106) he reveals a complete misunderstanding—another caricature—of papal infallibility.

Probably Harris considers post-conciliar Catholicism rather tame, yet he opposes it by saying "... even the most docile forms of Christianity currently present insuperable obstacles to AIDS prevention and family planning in the developing world, to medical research, and to the development of a rational drug policy—and these contributions to human misery alone constitute some of the most appalling failures of reasonableness in any age." (150; esp. 167-169).

The End of Faith is as much about the culture wars as anything else. His attacks upon an alleged irrationality of Mr. Justice Scalia and American anti-marijuana and anti-sodomy laws (156-164) seem unprofessional for an academic and more suited to an angry ACLU activist. Thus, Harris reveals himself as a popularizer who is especially annoyed at restraints on stem cell research (165-167).

Harris's philosophical hero is likely Bertrand Russell, who comes in for praise in places (esp. 173). Russell was a peace activist, and a man who accepted spirituality in some sense, but scrupulously subjected it to reason and science. Noam Chomsky gets a beating because he does not see that the real problem in the world is religion. Wittgenstein is dismissed (288-289 n. 19). Harris states plainly that faith is the mother of hatred (30). He can say something good about Rousseau and Schelling (283 n. 11). Generally, though, he is against Greek wisdom or Western philosophy because of its dualism, though he credits Pyrrho with some innovation, probably because he learned something when he traveled to the border of India (282 n. 9).

Basically, Harris thinks that science will solve nearly everything in this life, including matters of morality. He trusts the human mind unfailingly, thus implicitly rejecting Kant and his legacy (172). Ethics is located in the physical brain, not in the will or the intellect as classically conceived, by Kantians or by Thomists.

He joins a long line of those who have idolized modernity. People used to think this way before the sinking of the Titanic gave them pause, not to mention the pause given more recently after the demise of the Challenger and the Columbia. The Myth of Progress thrives in this book. Just escape from our obscurantist past and its odious survival in the present via faith, and the future will surely be bright.

Mr. Harris and my retired cardiologist may have something in common. The End of Faith could have been written only by a very young man. Harris is cocky and not very modest in his claims. He spreads the net of his discourse too widely. He is a trenchant mega-scoffer and a hot-shot currently on the lecture circuit. My retired cardiologist also began his career as an atheist, moved on to spend many years as an agnostic, and recently (like the venerable Anthony Flew) announced he was a Deist as the arguments from intelligent design theory were so compelling. Perhaps at the end of his academic journey Sam Harris's final thought might echo St. Augustine—"Too late have I loved Thee."

The historical Voltaire received the last sacraments on his deathbed. It was reported that Jean-Paul Sartre was moving in the direction of theism at the time of his death. Harris sympathizes with those who would enjoy the sacred, especially as death approaches (232 n. 20), but for him spirituality must be deeply rational (43) and divested of unreasonable faith-tenets. Spirituality is in the brain, and it is a state of consciousness, not a relationship with the Other—the Thou of Martin Buber. For Harris, that would be mere religion and he says "No personal God need be worshipped for us to live in awe at the beauty and immensity of creation" (227).

For now, Sam Harris is tightly locked in a universe knowable only to the most rigorous 18th and 19th century methodological empiricism united to the newest technology. Unlike Jacques and Raďssa Maritain a century ago, who discovered Henri Bergson to help them out of this particular philosophical dead-end, the young Mr. Harris has found no similar rescuer. He would minimize the saints whom Bergson revered, while offering no real antidote to despair, a common problem in post-Christian Western scholarship and its nihilist heirs.

We await his second book to learn if he has evolved in any worthwhile direction. The End of Faith breaks no new ground, nor does it rework old ground seriously. Neuroscience is fine, but it is not the tool to answer ultimate questions. We may already be frightened by reckless Islamism, but we did not require Mr. Harris's analysis of Islamism to do this for us (203). His proposal for a world government is so tiresome. His particular solution to the deeper problems of the human situation has already been explored (he denies this by saying religion prevents us from exploring anything since religion rejects all new evidence—176) in the first Enlightenment. Perhaps due to his youthfulness, Harris's philosophy is flashy and facile—or lacking in erudition, as when he wrongly ascribes a famed Scholastic adage to Christopher Hitchens (176). He confidently looks to the future of reason when he is recommending its worn past.

Related Ignatius Insight Articles and Book Excerpts:

The Better We Reason, the Nearer We Come to Truth | The Introduction to Reason to Believe: Why Faith Makes Sense | Richard Purtill
Dawkins' Delusions | An interview with Fr. Thomas Crean, O.P. | Carl E. Olson
Professor Dawkins and the Origins of Religion | Fr. Thomas Crean, O.P. | From God Is No Delusion: A Refutation of Richard Dawkins
Are Truth, Faith, and Tolerance Compatible? | Joseph Ratzinger
On "Believing" Atheists | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
Atheism and the Purely "Human" Ethic | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
Is Religion Evil? Secularism's Pride and Irrational Prejudice | Carl E. Olson
A Short Introduction to Atheism | Carl E. Olson
C.S. Lewis’s Case for Christianity | An Interview with Richard Purtill
Paganism and the Conversion of C.S. Lewis | Clotilde Morhan
Designed Beauty and Evolutionary Theory | Fr. Thomas Dubay, S.M.
The Universe is Meaning-full | An interview with Dr. Benjamin Wiker
The Mythological Conflict Between Christianity and Science | An interview with Dr. Stephen Barr
The Source of Certitude | Fr. Thomas Dubay, S.M.
Deadly Architects | An Interview with Donald De Marco & Benjamin Wiker

Father Brian Van Hove, S.J., is the Chaplain to the Religious Sisters of Mercy of Alma, Michigan.

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