This is among what I call the four essential books in the current discussion of reason in a world seemingly nuts for fundamentalist religious faith. I’d read Harris “Letter to a Christian Nation” and found it heartfelt, masterfully written and worthy of a read by every American. Having read Hitchens, Dawkins and Dennett I thought I knew what to expect from Harris, but I was immediately surprised. What begins as a clear and reasoned (and convincing) case that the complete abolition of religious faith would do us humans a world of good, then becomes a treatise on human ethics. I wasn’t expecting that, but kept on reading, as I have a keen interest in human morality and ethics and how and why we came upon them. For as Harris briefly states: the one thing that evolutionary psychology has done is show that our ethics are completely our own (meaning NOT from God). Harris then takes another turn about a third of the way from the end, and launches into a discussion of meditation and the possibility that what we call the human sense of “self” (or “soul”) might transcend our physical death. I found this odd, and not just for his sales pitch for meditation that is best learned (it seems) from experienced teachers. I also found it strange that after 2/3rds of a book that boldly reveals the very real and present danger to our species that irrational faith presents Harris is hanging on to the idea that our consciousness can survive the death of the body and brain. Of course, we don’t know what happens after we die, but I have a difficult time imagining where my soul would possibly go.
That being said, the first (and major) part of the book lives up perfectly to its title. It is a daunting challenge when one is presented by the sheer scope and force of human “faith”, and the un-imaginable human resources that are tied up in its continuance. What many of these authors are getting at (and what Harris comes right out and says) is that the so-called “moderates” of any belief system are, in essence, not truly representative of the religions they espouse. It is the Fundamentalist who is determined to not pick and choose between the uplifting and horrific verses in their chosen holy text. He also states the (often ignored) obvious: it is the most fundamental truth about the three major religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) that they fundamentally cannot co-exist or make accommodations for each other. They all three make exclusive and comprehensives claims to being THE truth. This made my heart sink, because it is absolutely true. The only reason us Americans do not live in a Christian Theocracy (under an “American Taliban”) is because our fundamentalist fellow citizens are diluted by a marginally secular culture. And I say “marginally” advisedly, for Harris also points out the degree to which even American institutions and laws are still guided by Biblical tenants. It’s disheartening to read this and find no fact to blunt its impact. It’s then simply frightening to realize that — as backwards as we Americans are in terms of Faith — there is an entire region of the world stuck in the 14th century (in terms of Faith) that is in possession of 21st century technology and weapons. There is really going to be no living with them, as the true followers of Islam cannot rest until every living human either believes as they do, or is forced to live under their religious laws.
It’s been a long time since someone was hanged for heresy in the west, but in Islam, it is still a simple law that to leave the faith is to suffer physical death. How do we combat that level of irrational belief?
Harris touches on an interesting idea that I’ve not read before, and it refers to the kinds of spiritual practices that developed in “the East”. In the midst of his pitch for the superiority of Eastern practices such as meditation, he makes the valid point that even meditation techniques are evidence-based (one “observes” one’s own feeling/thinking state), and supply a set of tools that can be employed by anyone and require no belief in an over-arching deity. But the more interesting point is that these philosophies and practices were able to develop in a part of the world that was not dominated by the three major monotheistic religions! I’d never thought of that — the East was not held back in their exploration by the rigid troika of Islam, Judaism and Christianity. Lucky them!
So there you have it. I’ve told you my criticisms, but the first big chunk of this book is an important read. Plus, I’ve never read a book that had so many precisely distilled and quotable statements about us humans and our religions (his succinct summation of ethics as being what comes into play when we hold the power to do another good or harm, for example). It’s a bold and necessary book for us and our survival. The only remaining problem we are left with is: what can we do with the knowledge this book gives us?
the not-so-reverend bob