quotes and notes from
The End of Faith
Sam Harris

Sam Harris

These pages: The End of Faith
Ch. 1
Chs. 2-3 (here)
Chs. 4-5
Chs. 6-7, Epilogue



index pages:

The End of Faith
Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason

Copyright © 2004 by Sam Harris


2. The Nature of Belief
“Freedom of belief” (in anything but the legal sense) is a myth. We will see that we are no more free to believe whatever we want about God than we are free to adopt unjustified beliefs about science or history, or free to mean whatever we want when using words like “poison” or “north” or “zero.” Anyone who would lay claim to such entitlements should not be surprised when the rest of us stop listening to him.


end of chapter

Beliefs as Principles of Action
Beliefs are principles of action: whatever they may be at the level of the brain, they are processes by which our understanding (and misunderstanding) of the world is represented and made available to guide our behavior.



The link between belief and behavior raises the stakes considerably. Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them. This may seem an extraordinary claim, but it merely enunciates an ordinary fact about the world in which we live. Certain beliefs place their adherents beyond the reach of every peaceful means of persuasion, while inspiring them to commit acts of extraordinary violence against others. There is, in fact, no talking to some people.

Note (Hal’s):
The problem of the ethical use of force, possibly even deadly force, is not simple. However, Harris’s proposed grounds must be challenged: the threat must be posed by the antagonist’s actions, not his beliefs. To appreciate this, one need merely recognize that a full understanding of another’s mind is not obtainable in real life, only in some types of fiction. Harris is trying to justify killing people for what we believe they believe, and either carelessly or deliberately obscuring that detail.

In practical experience, the beliefs which place their holders beyond peaceful persuasion are most commonly theories of pre-emptive self-defense similar to the one propounded here, because they attempt to justify unprovoked violence.

— end note


Chapter 3
beginning and end

Faith and Evidence
As long as a person maintains that his beliefs represent an actual state of the world (visible or invisible; spiritual or mundane), he must believe that his beliefs are a consequence of the way the world is. This, by definition, leaves him vulnerable to new evidence. Indeed, if there were no conceivable change in the world that could get a person to question his religious beliefs, this would prove that his beliefs were not predicated upon his taking any state of the world into account. He could not claim, therefore, to be representing the world at all.

Compare to:


Throughout this book, I am criticizing faith in its ordinary, scriptural sense—as belief in, and life orientation toward, certain historical and metaphysical propositions. The meaning of the term, both in the Bible and upon the lips of the faithful, seems to be entirely unambiguous. It is true that certain theologians and contemplatives have attempted to recast faith as a spiritual principle that transcends mere motivated credulity. [...]

Despite the considerable exertions of men like Tillich who have attempted to hide the serpent lurking at the foot of every altar, the truth is that religious faith is simply unjustified belief in matters of ultimate concern—specifically in propositions that promise some mechanism by which human life can be spared the ravages of time and death. Faith is what credulity becomes when it finally achieves escape velocity from the constraints of terrestrial discourse—constraints like reasonableness, internal coherence, civility, and candor.

It is only the notion that a doctrine is in accord with reality at large that renders a person’s faith useful, redemptive, or, indeed, logically possible, for faith in a doctrine is faith in its truth. What else but the truth of a given teaching could convince its adherents of the illegitimacy of all others? Heretical doctrines are deemed so, and accorded a healthy measure of disdain, for no other reason than that they are presumed to be false. Thus, if a Christian made no tacit claims of knowledge with regard to the literal truth of scripture, he would be just as much a Muslim, or a Jew—or an atheist—as a follower of Christ. [...] The faithful have never been indifferent to the truth; and yet, the principle of faith leaves them unequipped to distinguish truth from falsity in matters that most concern them.

Note (Hal’s):
The notion that a follower of Christ must accept a particular view on the literal truth of scripture is one of the many ways Harris agrees wholeheartedly with religious fundamentalists.

— end note

Faith and Madness

Is a person really free to believe a proposition for which he has no evidence? No. Evidence (whether sensory or logical) is the only thing that suggests that a given belief is really about the world in the first place. We have names for people who have many beliefs for which there is no rational justification. When their beliefs are extremely common we call them “religious”; otherwise, they are likely to be called “mad,” “psychotic,” or “delusional.” [...] There is a difference, to be sure, but it is not one that places religious faith in a flattering light.

It takes a certain kind of person to believe what no one else believes. To be ruled by ideas for which you have no evidence (and which therefore cannot be justified in conversation with other human beings) is generally a sign that something is seriously wrong with your mind. Clearly, there is sanity in numbers. [...] most religions have merely canonized a few products of ancient ignorance and derangement and passed them down to us as though they were primordial truths. This leaves billions of us believing what no sane person could believe on his own.

Note (Hal’s):
The term “evidence” as used here appears to mean, specifically and as a unique application in this context, evidence the author chooses to accept. This has become a common rhetorical device among atheists; they substitute “no evidence” for “no proof” to evade any demands for proof of their own equally unprovable beliefs.

“Rational” is another abused word: in the quotes collected here, it generally means derivable from premises. (Harris frequently declares himself to have found the beginnings of a rational exploration of a topic by adopting some premise.) However, he uses the word because it carries connotations of intellectual soundness, which is odd, because madmen are often extremely rational – they continue to derive logical conclusions well beyond the point where a sane person would become suspicious of the reasoning or of the underlying premises.

— end note

What Should We Believe?

Life is too short, and the world too complex, for any of us to go it alone in epistemological terms. We are ever reliant on the intelligence and accuracy, if not the kindness, of strangers.

This does not suggest, however, that all forms of authority are valid, nor does it suggest that even the best authorities will always prove reliable. There are good arguments and bad ones, precise observations and imprecise ones; and each of us has to be the final judge of whether or not it is reasonable to adopt a given belief about the world.

Note (Hal’s):
This implication of individual freedom is at odds with a great deal of the rest of the book. Examples can be found in Chapter 1 and earlier in Chapter 2.

— end note

3. In the Shadow of God

Note (Hal’s):
In Chapter 1, we were told we cannot tolerate diversity of religious beliefs. In Chapter 2, we were told there were cases in which it was ethical to kill someone for their beliefs. (Chapter 6 will explain why torture is not unethical.)

Yet here in Chapter 3, we are to be told what was wrong with the Inquisition! (Apparently, it’s that these things were done by people with religious beliefs instead of people who do it because they are, in the author’s estimation, reasonable.)

— end note

The medieval church was quick to observe that the Good Book was good enough to suggest a variety of means for eradicating heresy, ranging from a communal volley of stones to cremation while alive.* [...] As we noted earlier, Deuteronomy was the preeminent text in every inquisitor’s canon, for it explicitly enjoins the faithful to murder anyone in their midst, even members of their own families, who profess a sympathy for foreign gods. Showing a genius for totalitarianism that few mortals have ever fully implemented, the author of this document demands that anyone too squeamish to take part in such religious killing must be killed as well (Deuteronomy 17:12-13).

* For explicit mention of heresy in the New Testament, and of the natural intolerance of the faithful to dissent, see 1 Cor. 11:19; Gal. 5:20; 2 Pet 2:1; Rom. 16:17; 1 Cor. 1:10, 3:3, 14:33; Phil. 4:2; and Jude 19.

Note (Hal’s):
The footnote seems designed to suggest to the reader that these passages from Paul and others encourage killing. Their actual content (quoting the Revised Standard Version, with additions to avoid sentence fragments) follows. Brackets ( [ ] ) indicate text not found in all sources.

  • I Corinthians 11:18-19 – For, in the first place, when you assemble as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you; and I partly believe it, for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized.
  • Galatians 5:19-21 – Now the works of the flesh are plain: immorality, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, party spirit, envy, [murder,] drunkenness, carousing, and the like.
  • II Peter 2:1 – But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction.
  • Romans 16:17 – I appeal to you, brethren, to take note of those who create dissensions and difficulties, in opposition to the doctrine which you have been taught; avoid them.
  • I Corinthians 1:10 – I appeal to you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree and that there be no dissensions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment.
  • I Corinthinans 3:2-3 – I fed you with milk, not solid food; for you were not ready for it; and even yet you are not ready, for you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving like ordinary men?
  • I Corinthians 14:33 – For God is not a God of confusion but of peace.
  • Philippians 4:2 – I entreat Euodia and I entreat Syntyche to agree in the Lord.
  • Jude 19 – It is these who set up divisions, worldly people, devoid of the Spirit.

One is tempted to suspect these passages were listed in hopes no one would bother to check them. Most actually object to intolerance and admonish Christians to get along with each other. Peter does write about “swift destruction,” but reading that as a prescription for capital punishment would require extreme and deliberate distortion.

The list footnotes a reference to burning and stoning: hardly a fitting context for an epistolary entreaty to “agree in the Lord”!

Without defending capital punishment, I note that Deuteronomy 17:12-13 is inaccurately described. It prescribes death for a party who submits his case to a judge and then refuses to abide by the verdict, thereby undercutting the judicial system. I have now read the entire Bible, searching for (among other things) any command that those who refuse to participate in a stoning be stoned themselves, and I can attest that it’s not there.

— end note

Witch and Jew
Henceforth, it was an indisputable fact of this world that the communion host is actually transformed at the Mass into the living body of Jesus Christ. After this incredible dogma had been established, by mere reiteration, to the satisfaction of everyone, Christians began to worry that these living wafers might be subjected to all manner of mistreatment, and even physical torture, at the hands of heretics and Jews. (One might wonder why eating the body of Jesus would be any less of a torment to him.)
The Holocaust
The romantic thesis lurking here is that reason itself has a “shadow side” and is therefore no place to turn for the safeguarding of human happiness. This is a terrible misunderstanding of the situation, however. The Holocaust marked the culmination of German tribalism and two thousand years of Christian fulminating against the Jews. Reason had nothing to do with it. Put a telescope in the hands of a chimpanzee, and if he bashes his neighbor over the head with it, reason’s “shadow side” will have been equally revealed.
Whenever you hear that people have begun killing noncombatants intentionally and indiscriminately, ask yourself what dogma stands at their backs. What do these freshly minted killers believe? You will find that it is always—always—preposterous.

Note (Hal’s):
E.g., see the author’s notions of justifiable killing in Chapter 2 and Chapter 6.

— end note

text checked (see note) Oct 2007

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