Saturday , May 18 2024
If you met a person of the 14th century, you'd find they were astonishingly ignorant and astonishingly wrongheaded. Yet religion hasn't changed since then.

Reflections on The End of Faith by Sam Harris

Having been reading Sam Harris’s The End of Faith I had the curious experience of entirely agreeing with a book’s conclusion – that to ensure its survival the human race has to get rid of religion — and applauding its tone, while entirely disagreeing with many of the arguments.

He doesn’t pull any punches:

Jesus Christ – who, as it turns out, was born of a virgin, cheated death, and rose bodily into the heavens – can now be eaten in the form of a cracker. A few Latin words spoken over your favorite Burgundy, and you can drink his blood as well. Is there any doubt that a lone subscriber to these beliefs would be considered mad? Rather, is there any doubt that he would be mad. The danger of religious faith is that it allows otherwise normal human beings to reap the fruits of madness and consider them holy. … We are, even now, killing ourselves over ancient literature. Who would have thought something so tragically absurd could be possible? (p. 73)

The book makes the very powerful point that while religion has not moved on, at least in Islam and the Catholic Church, since the 14th century (you might say Protestantism benefits from another century or so of relatively limited improvements in knowledge), our knowledge and understanding in every other field has moved on enormously, exponentially. If we met a 14th-century person, we would find they were both astonishingly ignorant and astonishingly wrongheaded. Yet because of the way we’ve constructed religion, it can’t move on.

So far so good. But it is when he gets into modern specifics that I divurge from Harris. Specifically, he claims that there is something fundamental about Islam that makes it even more dangerous than Christianity. On that, I don’t agree. The forms of Islam now dominant, or at least strong, are dangerously comprehensive and all-enveloping in claiming authority over all aspects of society, from women’s clothes to jokes in cartoons, but that’s just one form of Islam, and there have been and are forms of Christianity that are just as bad. It is a mixture of historical accident and functionalism that determines which form of a religion is likely to be dominant in any society at a particular time.

More, he blames pretty well all of the wars, all of the suicide attacks in the world on religion, claiming for example that the Tamil Tigers, while not explicitly religious in their orientation, are powered by their beliefs to these self-destructive actions. But I fear that even if it were possible to wave a magic wand and get rid of all religious beliefs, while the world would be greatly improved in many ways, this would not solve Sri Lanka’s civil war, or indeed the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians, or indeed between Protestant and Catholics in Northern Ireland. Religion is part of these, but there are also very strong tribal/community elements in these conflicts, and the simple contest to control scarce, valuable resources. And there is something about human nature that in societies under extreme pressure, suicide bombers could still emerge, even without religion.

Harris writes from very much an American perspective, and therefore I’ll partially excuse him on my final main disagreement – over his pessimism. He sees religion growing stronger, its tentacles more widespread. That’s very much a US perspective. Here in Europe, the view is much more optimistic – take the recent figures on UK church attendance. For native Britons at least, the figure is sliding satisfying close to insignificant. Britain is, to nearly all practical purposes, a secular society, and a lot of the rest of Europe isn’t far behind.

So religion can be banished, and although I don’t agree with a lot of what Harris says, every book like this, which tackles it head-on, is to be applauded.

About Natalie Bennett

Natalie blogs at Philobiblon, on books, history and all things feminist. In her public life she's the leader of the Green Party of England and Wales.

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