Two Sam Harris Books

BACKGROUND:  This is a 2007 updating of a review I did in 2006.  In 2006, I wrote down my reaction to “The End of Faith, Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason,” by Sam Harris (W. W. Norton, New York, 2005).  In January of 2007 I ran across a new book, a very small one, by Sam Harris.  So I read it quickly and wrote a quick review and updated this page as my first website addition for 2007.

Harris' latest book is called "Letter to a Christian Nation" (Knopf, 2006).  It was a very fast read and left me with much the same ambivalent  feelings as his “The End of Faith” had last year: he rips hard and deep at the lack of logic in the faithful, full well realizing that faith is the antithesis of reason and logic based on proof: if something is known faith is no longer purposeful.  In other words he has once again sung to the choir and the choir will respond with rousing “Amen!”s.  So what was different this time?

He does very well what I tried to do myself in my review of the Bible (see link below), showing it to be a dangerous book where human freedom and morality are concerned if true believers also gain political power or have absolute power at home.

He covers the same ground I have covered regarding the allowance for slavery (and the explicit allowance for cruelty toward [non-Hebrew] slaves) in the Old Testament, and the continuing acceptance of slavery in the New Testament.

This time he contrasts Christian teachings with Jainism as an example of a more explicitly moral faith, last time when he was largely going after the Muslim belief system he was contrasting it with Buddhism.  He does a marvelous job pointing out that an inerrant Bible believer would feel obligated to, in some instances, or feel the right to impose, in other instances, death penalties for such things as adultery, going after or even suggesting going after the worship or supplication of another god, or even talking back to a parent by a child.  

But as in the “End of Faith” book he also goes after (largely Catholic) Christian accommodations of cruelty by focusing on anti-abortion and anti-birth-control campaigns in the face of an HIV epidemic and in the face of starvation and deprivation especially among the children of the  grindingly poor.  All Christians who are focused on stopping sex among young people without making contraceptives available get the critical treatment, as do those like Mother Theresa who see the condition of grinding poverty not as an intrinsic evil but as a calling from God.  

Stem-cell research opponents are given no quarter either since they are protecting potential embryos who will likely never become living beings and in so doing stop hope for an improved quality of life for many who are already living beings.  It is all so mindless and so discouraging.

He quickly revisits the cruelties of humans in their kidnappings and abuses of children that we see often in the news, and then turns to how nature acts up resulting in mass killings and maimings as proof that there is not a loving God watching over us all either individually or collectively.

 Of course he already knows the response of the faithful to that one: whatever happens it is all part of God’s plan and we must trust that all will be well in the end as God sees it, not as we see it.  

He goes through some science insights not compatible with religious dogma, and in one place he observes that the extinction of countless species in the past (and present) proves there is no Intelligent Design.  Here he makes a statement of faith, in my opinion.  If you believe that all creation exists for mankind, of course it is then part of the overall design to prepare the earth for us by having these many life forms live and die to supply us with the fossil fuels and  chemicals we will need to create our advanced society (and it has to be an advanced society so we can evangelize the entire world and prepare it for the Second Coming).  Of course squeezing all of that into 6,000 some years is difficult, but we need to realize that the Christian world of believers is not monolithic on this time issue at all, some are strict and literalistic in their interpretations of the Genesis time-frames, some see the Genesis time periods as symbolic, and some serious Catholic pronouncements on the need to accommodate evolution as a near-proven theory have been refreshing (Harris does not get into this territory explicitly, but again refers to the moderates among believers as unwittingly acting as a screen to stop public questioning of faith, thus allowing the extremists to continue their campaigns unchallenged in their midsts).

All in all Harris provides a 'nice' second-salvo in his war against the potential destructiveness of faith when it is given political power.  Nice?  Well, I have to admit to being a member of his choir on his main points, but I simply choose to sing more softly because causing a lynching mob on either side is no way to make progress either.  

Harris, in taking on the self-claimed morality of the US as a "Christian nation," makes the very nice point that in countries where churches have lost influence, as in Western Europe, living standards are up and crime (except among immigrants of faith, he claims) is down compared with the US.  Of course there is much more to that story than can be told in just a few pages, and a good safety net that prevents despair and desperation is perhaps more important than the presence or absence of faith, in my opinion.

So if I enjoyed, but did not wholly and totally endorse, Harris’ thundering oratory this time either, what is my prescription for dealing with the very real issue he is addressing in his two books?  

My prescription is this: do not allow any inroads to be made on the separation of church and state.  Defend the US Constitution on this issue, and whatever other national legal documents reign in your own country that contain similar ideas and ideals. Adherence to these guiding documents assure that the religious abuses of the Middle Ages (Inquisition and Crusades) and early modern period (witch-craze and more localized but still violent and cruel persecutions between sects, sects at war within and between Christianity, Islam or even Hinduism) will be stamped out if they are still active, and not come back.  

Each of these religiously founded terrors required a mixing of religious and political authority at some level.  Guard against that mixing wherever it even has the appearance of taking place, especially in publicly funded schools (the younger generation is the key to survival at every age, horrifying as that may sound to older ears), then let people believe how and what they want.  I mention the schools because of the movement in the US to introduce Intelligent Design (a savvy version of Creation-Science) as an alternative scientific theory on the origin of life in the universe.  

A SLIGHTLY REVISED VERSION OF MY 2006 REVIEW OF SAM HARRIS' "THE END OF FAITH:"

I did not enjoy reading this book, it agitated and disturbed me.  Why?  Not because it is a deep echo of many of my own observations and feelings.  But because it takes things I have thought and said and carries them to a deeper level, a level I have not yet dared set foot into except occasionally when goaded.  

Where I have plowed on the subject of religion and its texts, he has taken a deeper tool over the same territories and ripped.  Ripping versus plowing is where Harris and I differ.  It is an important difference, ask any farmer.  Plowing removes weeds and allows new seed to be introduced, ripping removes the roots of old deeper-rooted vegetation to give new seed of a different variety of crop a better chance at dominating and surviving.

Harris suggests that it is religion in general, especially religions of faith, meaning Judaism. Christianity and Islam (I list them in order of their appearance in the world) with their exclusivity claims, that feed human inhumanity (from shunning to all out war).  Harris suggests Hinduism is in this category as well, but is separable from these three religions "of the book."  Like Eric Hoffer before him, in the book “The True Believer,” Harris also likens the blind devotion and obedience of the zealots of the National Socialists and Communist regimes in our history, and the incredible cruelty and inhumanity of those regimes, to religions (oh, by the way, he has a quote from Hitler in his "Letter" book showing even he fancied himself a Christian).  

He describes this religion-fed inhumanity in very disturbing and compelling terms, and admits that there may be no solution except the conversion of the world to reason and a spirituality that does not require setting reason aside.   I agree.

But even though I agree, here he is ripping ground that I more gently plow.  For example, one of the reasons I am so fascinated by the mystics of Christianity and Islam is because I see in their messages a potential for modifying and enlightening their respective religions. But Harris is quick to point out that my all time favorite, Rumi, a Muslim and Sufi who declared there to be no difference between a Jew, a Christian or a Muslim in the sight of God, was considered a heretic, and so were most Sufi and Christian mystics at one point or another.  Harris is right, but I don't think that totally invalidates my approach, just makes it more difficult.  (Hope springs eternal. . . .)

He recommends instead the Buddhist mystical tradition, saying they approach the nature of reality, whereas western mystics only explore and plow interior landscapes, which is worthwhile but does not get to the truth of what consciousness is, hence what life is and humanity is.  He mentions this again in his "Letter" book, suggesting the Christian mystics constrained their insights to support belief, and this is something I have also noted and written about, but it still does not totally invalidate the approach of spreading the messages of certain Christian (or Muslim) mystics to enlightening the believer with these insights that are very far removed from a literalistic interpretation of their scriptures.

The religion-induced inhumanity Harris describes so effectively and disturbingly includes some of my own observations, but ones I have made mostly to myself.  He brings up issues that have made the news that make no sense except within a narrow vision that stems from a particular religious belief.  My own version of such issues include some that Harris also writes about: how can it be acceptable to sacrifice tens of thousands of people in a war, while at the same time it is a religious offense to experiment with a frozen human embryo?  How is it acceptable to keep contraceptives from people, and to make abortion almost impossible, when there is an Aids epidemic and children will be born into situations that are heartbreaking and emotionally and spiritually crippling from the start?  Harris describes these types of atrocities as being examples of religion-fed inhumanity, and I can’t disagree with him.

In that vein, I feel justified being a pacifist in my heart.  I was a voluntary enlistee during the Vietnam War years, but this is not the type of pacifism I am talking about, I am talking about on a personal level not a national level.  So I don't totally disagree when Harris declares pacifism to be an untenable position, it just makes one's conquest easier, and as long as there are faiths that believe their calling is to be God's chosen and they have been chosen to make the earth ready for God's return, there will be such conquests.  He says the world is in a state of religious war, Islam versus all who are not Islam and thus pollute the world in the eyes of God.  But it is more than Islam, Christians are making aggressive political moves, especially in the US., to coerce faith-based legal prescriptions and proscriptions.  Harris pulls no punches on this one, and it is very disheartening when he suggests there is no such thing as a moderate Muslim since a moderate Muslim is one who does not take his scriptural texts seriously enough.  But such a person will not oppose the more fervent who seek to act on their faith’s declarations regarding their obligation to wipe out or subdue the unbeliever.

He likens the current Muslim world to Christianity in the Middle Ages, and here I agree with him. Both internally and externally, those who did not believe, or even believe properly, were harshly dealt with and war was even declared on their world-rival faith to the south: Islam.  Harris corrects my opinion that Spain before the reconquest was an enlightened place where Muslim, Jew and Christian lived in peace.  He says it wasn’t that sweet at all, and when persecuted Jews fled Spain and moved in with the displaced Muslims who moved to North Africa, they were tolerated but marked and treated as unbelievers.  

I haven’t the resources right now to see who is right on this one.  My base of information is Henry Grady Weaver’s “The Mainspring of Human Progress” which suggested that it was personal and fiscal freedom that caused there to be a revolution in thought and accomplishment in the Muslim world, while Europe languished under the yoke of an absolute religion that defined life and the universe and the prescribed the ranks of humanity and ruthlessly fought any attempt to change any of these things: feudalism was God’s order, peasants existed to serve their lords.  Even Luther allowed ruthless suppression of the peasants in their short-lived rebellion in Germany because it was God who had placed them in this subservient position, so who were they to try and change that?

A perfect example of Christianity doing in the past what the Muslim world is doing today, to me, is the Radical Anabaptist movement in Muenster, Germany, in the 15th century.  These people really believed their scripture book to be the very word of God and created a totalitarian regime wherein the disobedient or even those who simply failed to believe with sufficient enthusiasm, were treated as specified in the law of Moses: exiled or put to the sword.  They were creating a society of such righteousness that, as in the days of Moses or David, God would come and dwell among them.

They saw polygamy in that Old Testament society, and made it mandatory.  They saw disrespect for the prophet as a capital offense in the Old Testament, and beheaded critics of their inspired  leadership within their own ranks. They saw a call for the conversion of the world in the New Testament and felt themselves called to missionary work, and to draw the sword if they were rejected.  

These were the last days, and the earth was to be cleaned of all the unrighteous (=unbelievers).  All of this was fully justified in scripture.  Catholics and their arch-nemeses, the Lutherans, actually cooperated in slaughtering the Anabaptists, some of whose survivors made it into the more enlightened pacifism of Menno Simons’ version of the same Anabaptist movement: the Mennonites.

I write about this revealing historical episode elsewhere on this website in some detail because I find them so fascinatingly illustrative of what happens when a society tries to live ‘by the book’ very literally.  The Bible in hands and minds and hearts such as these, if they also have political power, is a very dangerous book.  I agree with Harris on that one.

Harris says that the God of Abraham is not worthy of respect.  I agree and say this myself on this website.  But Harris' language is ripping, I take many, many words to say the same thing in essence, but I am plowing.  There is a difference, to me.

Pages 72 and 73, where Harris discusses faith as akin to mental illness, is one place where he rips and I would have plowed.  He makes the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation into a ridiculous caricature, akin to madness.  This is one of the areas of Catholicism the Anabaptists also virulently mocked and attacked in their literature against the church, which they called "the great evil one," which had lost its way and needed to be restored (it also fed a lot of Protestant literature).  Yet if you discuss this with any enlightened Catholic they will likely tell you (as one did me) that this is a mystery that is not to be understood literally, but it is a mystagogue, a device that upon contemplation allows one to feel one's unity with God.  Was I informed by a heretic?  I don’t think so, she was/is very devoted and devout.

My point is one that Harris hints at: belief changes with time.  He keeps seeing the radical Islamic world (under cover of moderates who cannot tolerate any questioning of their faith from the outside) as an intrusion from the 14th-century into the present.  Theirs is a fanatical mindset that has already discounted any western thought or even westernized humanity as evil wherever it may be found.

We westerners (and those who go along with our ways) represent the great evil of unbelief.  We are a cause of God’s displeasure and judgment, and those who carry out this judgment will be rewarded when they return into God’s presence.  

Harris makes fun of the concept of being served by bright-eyed ‘houris’ in paradise, a vision often invoked by westerners to make light of Muslim motivation for self-sacrifice in God’s war.  I like what Rumi had to say on this topic, which is that houris are obviously your wife or wives, if they were faithful, taking away some of the sting from the parody that Harris is trying to make this belief into. Harris suggests that the whole idea is based on a mistranslation of some sort.  He suggests that a handful of sweet raisins is actually what the word intended, but thus is incredible to me given the context in the Koran.  Raisins do not walk from couch to heavenly couch serving refreshments.

But what good does it do for Harris to say this?  It is like saying that there is a mistranslation in the Bible that shows some minor but firmly held belief is in error.  Will any form of Christianity make an immediate adjustment?  No. We have tons of examples of this, where scholarship has shown parts of the Bible to be in error compared with original documents, and nothing changes.  What we have instead is cults even more devoted to the idea of Biblical inerrancy, a reaction to the Godless scholars [often supported by public moneys] trying to destroy faith.  We also have several religions that keep the King James Version on the pulpit and state it to be the best translation, largely because a few of their pet doctrines are diluted in English versions of a more modern stripe.

Harris despairs that nothing will change and we will always be “besieged by armies of the preposterous” (p. 73) [internally and externally].  About a hundred pages later, Harris gets into territory that really interests me, the linkages between mind, intuition and ethics.  Page 173 makes a statement that rips where I have plowed, but I really cannot disagree with it:

That is a deep furrow, but then Harris rips with this final thought:

The solution to this ignorance?  Self-knowledge in the Buddhist tradition (pages 216-217 give a compelling quote, and a discussion).  Here in this general section is where Harris praises the Buddhist contribution to self-knowing as “rigorously empirical” and “not a statement of metaphysics.”  He suggests, by saying this, that the insights of Buddhist mysticism can be sought and obtained by anyone with the same result, hence it is testable and reproducible.  A trustworthy basis, therefore,  for self knowing.  However, there is the admission that

Sorry, but this reminds me of a discussion I had with a true believer on scriptural inerrancy.  He said that to understand God’s word certain rules of interpretation had to be followed, hey were clear, they were precise, they were based on scripture itself, ergo, there is no excuse for the false beliefs and doctrines that are rife among Christians and most Christians will go to hell for disbelief because of this.  No excuse in his mind, or in God’s mind, and they will be sent to hell for worshiping a false, unscriptural, God because they did not read right.  ‘They,’ of course included me at the time, I was a true believing Mormon, horror of horrors (I even believed in modern prophecy and in there being other revealed books!).

As Harris says (or would if asked, I’m sure), a God that tricks people into hell by providing ambiguous instructions with a hidden decoder ring is not worthy of respect, let alone worship.  I will rip right beside him on this instance.  But I see that Harris offers something that may seem unambiguous to him, but will not seem so to many others.  Even Buddhism is divided, after all.

In several places Harris pleases me greatly by asserting that the statement, usually made from a claim to a scientific viewpoint, that there is no survival after death, is dogmatic and has no scientific support.  One of several instances where Harris discusses this is page 208 where he writes:

I very much liked Harris’ rippingly harsh words (page 295) for aspects of the New Age, on the subject of gurus, and on the subject of esoteric (re)interpretation of existing scripture on his pages 295-298.

But, as is usual, I was less enthused about his treatment of my favorite source of insight into this very topic, the astonishingly enlightened views of Sufi (Muslim) and Christian (orthodox and heretical) mystics.

One thing I found enjoyable in a positive way was his accompanying discussion of our notion of who we are, the "I," and what it really means.  This is what leads Harris to the discussion and endorsement of the Buddhist insight already mentioned.  This book is surprising, in a positive way, when it comes to some of its insights into the nature of being human.  It also discusses the idea that there is consciousness in other forms of life, a discussion I also liked.

So what was there I disliked so much?  The feeling of inner hopelessness that I felt in myself throughout my reading of the book.  In the end, Harris appeals to the world to throw off its unreasonable beliefs, which are the cause of great violence and misery and threaten our very existence as a species.  This appeal is reiterated in the Epilogue on pages 223-227.  But Harris admits on page 224:

He goes on to note that the Apocalypse is nigh, and is of our own making, collectively speaking.  

In various places in the book (first instance starts on page 14) he rips the point that it is moderate religionists who protect this irrationality of our beliefs and contribute, thus, to the state the world finds itself in.  They are the ones that point to religious radicals as the problem, but at the same time they stifle rational public discourse on the irrationality of their own beliefs, the very beliefs that, with a little change in emphasis, feed the radicals’ beliefs.  This puts in context his rather naive plea to have us tell children the truth on page 224.  Surely he is not suggesting we (moderate and passionate and radical believers included) purposely lie to our children?  

Most people answer children’s questions sincerely, and speak what we know to be truth, adapted to the child’s capacity of course, and for most people in the world their notion of truth is genuinely based in their religious understanding.  They have a world view based in their religion. Come on Harris, you said as much yourself back on page 74:

And can we really expect billions of people to seek their own epistemological (fact-based) insights into the most vexing human question of all, the existential abyss?  Harris explores the “intolerable fear of death” (page 39) and the fact that we live “in a universe that seems bent on destroying us” (page 23) as motivation for religion and thus as their sources of power.  His discussions of Medieval inhumanities in Europe that were perpetrated to protect the bad answers religion was capable of giving to alleviate the fear of death and explain the universe is right on the money and ought to awaken us to the dangers he also discusses (mostly about the US. situation, in his Chapter 5) that come with letting religion influence the political process and officially interpret good and evil for us all.

Did I lose my train of thought, moving from Harris being naive about the possibility of making a world change from irrationality to rationality in a generation, to the US. seeing a rising religious influence in its political landscape?  No, I see Harris’ book itself as a reason not to be optimistic of any amount of change any time soon.  The world seems to be headed into greater and greater irrationality.  Harris spends many pages establishing this as fact.

So, Harris’ scheme won’t work because most parents and educators are not lying to the kids.  They are simply, and sincerely, passing on what they have themselves accepted as true answers for dealing with the astonishing fact that they are something somewhere in infinite space and time that knows it exists in space and time, and knows it will die in time.

Expecting people on any large scale to question their accepted truths and instead seek a new, rational, personal, epistemological basis for dealing with the fact of the universe and their pending death is certainly naive.  So is there another way?

Until I read Harris’ book I felt there was another way and was happily embarked on it.  There is a tiny shrine in Cactus Springs, southern Nevada, on Highway 95 just north of Indian Springs, that is dedicated to world peace.  To me its message is that (or if it isn't, it ought to be that) the unity of the spiritual, experiential core that underlies all religions ought to be rediscovered, and we ought to stop the killings and tortures over the shape of the scaffoldings we have built over those core spiritual insights.  

I quite like that notion, and my writings about some of the western mystics on this website were in part motivated by the same idea: if people could see, and experience in their hearts, what mystics from their own tradition have seen and experienced, they would not have it in their hearts to seek to do violence to anyone, even if they do not have the same beliefs.

Harris sees nothing this good ever coming out of a devoted study of western spiritual/mystical tradition, and recommends the eastern, particularly the Buddhist, model instead.  He rips, not plows, modern esoteric mysticism on pages 300-301 as “unnecessary” at best since it does not improve consciousness or empty the self to bring new and permanent insight into the nature of reality.  He grudgingly, it seems, acknowledges that:

He goes on to explain that the freedom he is speaking of lies in understanding that we are only consciousness, we are already “free of ‘I’” –and the sooner we realize this the better.

OK, so this is looking at the more modern, more celebrated, so-called spiritual experiences of religionists and New Agers who have and proclaim visions and miracles, channeled knowledge, near-death experiences, etc.  I have plowed that ground also on this web site, I agree there is a lot of irrationality out there, and much of it quite calculatingly designed to make the purveyors of this esoteric knowledge famous, even rich.  But I would not rip it as thoroughly as Harris has done.  After all, if you had a vision and believed sincerely that it was your calling from a higher power to broadcast it to the world, would you not also write a book, set up seminars, do the talk shows, etc? Sure you would, it is part of how you fulfill that mandate in our place and time.

But what about the very deep (in my never-humble opinion) insights of some of the Medieval mystics that I admire and quote over and over?  Harris, again rips here, or at least engages in some very deep plowing when he adds an occasional bit of faint praise on his pages 293-296.  Here is some of his faint praise from page 294 after naming some stellar examples of western mysticism:  

Harris is similarly dismissive of much of Jewish and Sufi spiritual mysticism, claiming that the Jewish Kabbalah does not rise into nondualistic insight at all, and the occasional Sufi that did was judged heretical, meaning his premature and usually violent death.  He acknowledges that Eckhardt and Rumi were bright lights in this darkness, but hastens to rip again saying that:

Harris goes on to rip deeper, but you get the point:

To be fair, Harris lumps some eastern religions into this faith-based religion basket and acknowledges that even non-faith-based Buddhism has its share of irrationality, ignorance, and even violence by those millions of adherents who do not understand that theirs is not a faith-based religion. (Page 293)

This again reminds me of the Christian man who said to me that unless you divided the word of God rightly, you believed wrongly, and would go to hell.  No reflection on Christianity, just on the inability or unwillingness (stupidity or laziness) of millions of its adherents to look for and apply the key to scripture’s correct interpretation, which key is contained in the scriptures.  This makes God a very unfair and unjust being in my opinion, and I rejected that approach to belief out of hand long ago, even when I still believed.  So when Harris suggests similarly, in my opinion, that Buddhism can’t be blamed just because it is mistaken for a religion by millions of its adherents it sounds like a similar intellectually-elitist apology for a narrow view of what truth is.

I hope humanity will survive all its faith-based religions.  

But after reading Harris, I have grave doubts.

To visit Sam Harris on his own web site, click on this line.

References to subjects mentioned above on this (my) web site:

Nature of Consciousness and Reality:

Consciousness

Afterlife?

Reality

Mystics and Mysticism (a selected few from among many on this site):

Rumi

Hadewijch

Ruisbroec and Porete

Various others including Sister Catherine or Katrei

Mysticism, Good or Evil?

The Nevada Shrine to Sekhmet

Sekhmet Shrine

Scripture criticism:

Old and New Testaments

Radical Anabaptists:

Comparison of two polygamies

Historical fiction about the Radical Anabaptist experience

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