quotes and notes from
The End of Faith
Sam Harris

Sam Harris

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



index pages:

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

Copyright © 2004 by Sam Harris


4. The Problem with Islam

Note (Hal’s):
A very large portion of this book appears to try using the rising anti-Muslim sentiment in the U.S. as leverage for encouraging a more general antipathy toward religious belief. Quotes from this chapter are mostly collected to remind myself of details, and to call the bigotry to the attention of anyone else reading this.

Not being well versed in the Koran, I cannot judge Harris’s use of quotations from it – save to note that I see no reason, given his anti-Muslim jingoism, to expect him to treat the Koran any more honestly or honorably than the Bible. His handling of Bible quotations is inaccurate and at times deceptive, as noted above.

— end note

There is no telling what our world would now be like had some great kingdom of Reason emerged at the time of the Crusades and pacified the credulous multitudes of Europe and the Middle East. We might have had modern democracy and the Internet by the year 1600. The fact that religious faith has left its mark on every aspect of our civilization is not an argument in its favor, nor can any particular faith be exonerated simply because certain of its adherents made foundational contributions to human culture.

Note (Hal’s):
Actually, that great kingdom of Reason did emerge, just about that time; see Richard E. Rubenstein, Aristotle’s Children. Where does Harris think modern democracy, technology and science started? The development was accelerated after major philosophical works, including those of Aristotle with commentaries from Muslim scientists, came into Christian hands. The reason the kingdom of Reason never “pacified the credulous multitudes” is that excessive credulity toward Reason (that is, toward artfully constructed and apparently rational arguments) is as pernicious as unexamined acceptance of any other authority.

The reference to “the Internet by the year 1600” is either a stylistic flourish of hyperbole, or (if meant seriously) childish. One might better reflect that without the contributions of Islam’s libraries, we might not have had the Internet until the year 2400.

— end note

We are at war with Islam. [...] It is not merely that we are at war with an otherwise peaceful religion that has been “hijacked” by extremists. We are at war with precisely the vision of life that is prescribed to all Muslims in the Koran, and further elaborated in the literature of the hadith, which recounts the sayings and actions of the Prophet. A future in which Islam and the West do not stand on the brink of mutual annihilation is a future in which most Muslims have learned to ignore most of their canon, just as most Christians have learned to do.

A Fringe without a Center
While Muslims are quick to observe that there is an inner (or “greater”) jihad, which involves waging war against one’s own sinfulness, no amount of casuistry can disguise the fact that the outer (or “lesser”) jihad—war against infidels and apostates—is a central feature of the faith. Armed conflict in “defense of Islam” is a religious obligation for every Muslim man. We are misled if we believe that the phrase “in defense of Islam” suggests that all Muslim fighting must be done in “self-defense.” On the contrary, the duty of jihad is an unambiguous call to world conquest.

Compare to:

Khalid Elmasry

Jihad and the Power of the Atom
What will we do if an Islamist regime, which grows dewy-eyed at the mere mention of paradise, ever acquires long-range nuclear weaponry? If history is any guide, we will not be sure about where the offending warheads are or what their state of readiness is, and so we will be unable to rely on targeted, conventional weapons to destroy them. In such a situation, the only thing likely to ensure our survival may be a nuclear first strike of our own. [...] How would such an unconscionable act of self-defense be perceived by the rest of the Muslim world? It would likely be seen as the first incursion of a genocidal crusade. The horrible irony here is that seeing could make it so: this very perception could plunge us into a state of hot war with any Muslim state that had the capacity to pose a nuclear threat of its own. All of this is perfectly insane, of course: I have just described a plausible scenario in which much of the world’s population could be annihilated on account of religious ideas that belong on the same shelf with Batman, the philosopher’s stone, and unicorns.

Note (Hal’s):
This nightmare scenario is driven not by Muslims’ beliefs, but by the beliefs Harris holds concerning Muslims. One might well ask whether nuclear weapons are already in the hands of people holding similar lunatic notions of self-defense. (I mean similar to those of Harris, not to those he attributes to all Muslims.)

— end note

The Clash
It is time we recognized that all reasonable men and women have a common enemy. It is an enemy so near to us, and so deceptive, that we keep its counsel even as it threatens to destroy the very possibility of human happiness. Our enemy is nothing other than faith itself.
The Riddle of Muslim “Humiliation”
At this point in their history, give most Muslims the freedom to vote, and they will freely vote to tear out their political freedoms by the root. We should not for a moment lose sight of the possibility that they would curtail our freedoms as well, if they only had the power to do so.

Note (Hal’s):
In regard to who is already curtailing whose freedoms, see the next quote.

— end note

This is a terrible truth that we have to face: the only thing that currently stands between us and the roiling ocean of Muslim unreason is a wall of tyranny and human rights abuses that we have helped to erect. This situation must be remedied, but we cannot merely force Muslim dictators from power and open the polls. It would be like opening the polls to the Christians of the fourteenth century.
Perfect Weapons and the Ethics of “Collateral Damage”
How would George Bush have prosecuted the recent war in Iraq with perfect weapons? Would he have targeted the thousands of Iraqi civilians who were maimed or killed by our bombs? [...] What would Saddam Hussein or Osama bin Laden do with perfect weapons? What would Hitler have done? They would have used them rather differently.

Note (Hal’s):
The definition given of a “perfect weapon” makes it capable of imposing the user’s will in any circumstance. That is, the possessor is automatically able to control, by force, everyone else – unless they also possess perfect weapons, in which case whichever possessor uses it first, wins. Exactly one person, with this weapon, owns the entire world; that person begins with a willingness to use it to ensure sole possession, and thereafter rules the world (however benevolently) by enslaving the rest of it.

While I don’t think President Bush, if he had that power, likely to harm anyone more than necessary to achieve his chosen objectives, it’s not clear that any of our favorite villains would do so, either, if they were guaranteed victory regardless. We only know what each is willing to do with imperfect weapons, pursuing victories still in doubt.

Saddam and bin Laden, of course, were armed in the 1990s by the United States government precisely because of their lack of inhibitions in using the weapons.

— end note

But what distinguishes us from many of our enemies is that this indiscriminate violence appalls us. The massacre at My Lai is remembered as a signature moment of shame for the American military. [...] As a culture, we have clearly outgrown our tolerance for the deliberate torture and murder of innocents. We would do well to realize that much of the world has not.

Note (Hal’s):
Artfully phrased! The author approves of killing innocents under the rubric of “collateral damage”, and he approves of torture – see Chapter 6. He apparently assumes torturers can exclude innocent victims, even without formal hearings, public charges, defense attorneys, etc.; in short, that presumption of innocence can be removed without endangering the truly innocent, except as collateral damage, which he regards as acceptable.

I don’t see much difference from the attitude of the soldiers who committed the My Lai massacre. The claims for a superior culture apparently rest on the notion that being “appalled” at one’s actions, without actually stopping them, is a praiseworthy form of hypocrisy.

— end note

[...] we should not ignore the fact that we must now confront whole societies whose moral and political development—in their treatment of women and children, in their prosecution of war, in their approach to criminal justice, and in their very intuitions about what constitutes cruelty—lags behind our own. This may seem like an unscientific and potentially racist thing to say, but it is neither. It is not in the least racist, since it is not at all likely that there are biological reasons for the disparities here, and it is unscientific only because science has not yet addressed the moral sphere in a systematic way.
A Waste of Precious Resources
Think of all the good things human beings will not do in this world tomorrow because they believe that their most pressing task is to build another church or mosque, or to enforce some ancient dietary practice, or to print volumes upon volumes of exegesis on the disordered thinking of ignorant men. How many hours of human labor will be devoured, today, by an imaginary God? Think of it: if a computer virus shuts down a nation’s phone system for five minutes, the loss in human productivity is measured in billions of dollars. Religious faith has crashed our lines daily, for millennia.
What Can We Do?

We are in the presence of the past. It is by no means a straightforward task to engage such people in constructive dialogue, to convince them of our common interests, to encourage them on the path to democracy, and to mutually celebrate the diversity of our cultures.

It is clear that we have arrived at a period in our history where civil society, on a global scale, is not merely a nice idea; it is essential for the maintenance of civilization. [...]

What constitutes a civil society? At minimum, it is a place where ideas, of all kinds, can be criticized without the risk of physical violence. If you live in a land where certain things cannot be said about the king, or about an imaginary being, or about certain books, because such utterances carry the penalty of death, torture, or imprisonment, you do not live in a civil society. [...] Zakaria has persuasively argued that the transition from tyranny to liberalism is unlikely to be accomplished by plebiscite. It seems all but certain that some form of benign dictatorship will generally be necessary to bridge the gap. But benignity is the key—and if it cannot emerge from within a state, it must be imposed from without.

5. West of Eden
The War on Sin

In the United States, and in much of the rest of the world, it is currently illegal to seek certain experiences of pleasure. Seek pleasure by a forbidden means, even in the privacy of your own home, and men with guns may kick in the door and carry you away to prison for it. One of the most surprising things about this situation is how unsurprising most of us find it. As in most dreams, the very faculty of reason that would otherwise notice the strangeness of these events seems to have succumbed to sleep.

Behaviors like drug use, prostitution, sodomy, and the viewing of obscene materials have been categorized as “victimless crimes.” Of course, society is the tangible victim of almost everything human beings do—from making noise to manufacturing chemical waste—but we have not made it a crime to do such things within certain limits. Setting these limits is invariably a matter of assessing risk. [...] But we must ask ourselves, why would anyone want to punish people for engaging in behavior that brings no significant risk of harm to anyone? Indeed, what is startling about the notion of a victimless crime is that even when the behavior in question is genuinely victimless, its criminality is still affirmed by those who are eager to punish it. It is in such cases that the true genius lurking behind many of our laws stands revealed. The idea of a victimless crime is nothing more than a judicial reprise of the Christian notion of sin.

Note (Hal’s):
This is not badly reasoned, except for the sloppiness of accepting a simple set of categories as victimless. For example, no one aware of a recent local case of sex slavery could dismiss prostitution as victimless without qualification.

— end note

Our prohibition of certain substances has led thousands of otherwise productive and law-abiding men and women to be locked away for decades at a stretch, sometimes for life. Their children have become wards of the state. As if such cascading horror were not disturbing enough, violent criminals—murderers, rapists, and child molesters—are regularly paroled to make room for them.



The God of Medicine

While there is surely an opposition between reason and faith, we will see that there is none between reason and love or reason and spirituality. The basis for this claim is simple. Every experience that a human being can have admits of rational discussion about its causes and consequences (or about our ignorance thereof). Although this leaves considerable room for the exotic, it leaves none at all for faith. There may yet be good reasons to believe in psychic phenomena, alien life, the doctrine of rebirth, the healing power of prayer, or anything else—but our credulity must scale with the evidence. The doctrine of faith denies this. From the perspective of faith, it is better to ape the behavior of one’s ancestors than to find creative ways to uncover new truths in the present.

There are sources of irrationality other than religious faith, of course, but none of them are celebrated for their role in shaping public policy. [...] Only mainstream religious dogmatism receives the unqualified support of government.

We also know that research on embryonic stem cells requires the destruction of human embryos at the 150-cell stage. There is not the slightest reason to believe, however, that such embryos have the capacity to sense pain, to suffer, or to experience the loss of life in any way at all.

Note (Hal’s):
Just for the sake of argument, if I murder an adult human being in a way that guarantees the victim doesn’t feel or sense it (say, because I catch them sleeping and either kill them instantly or render them insensible before killing them), is that all right? It wouldn’t cause them “to sense pain, to suffer, or to experience the loss of life,” would it?

I’m not saying there aren’t good arguments for research on embryonic stem cells. I am saying that this particular argument is silly trash.

— end note

Their concern is not merely that a collection of 150 cells may suffer its destruction. Rather, they believe that even a human zygote (a fertilized egg) should be accorded all the protections of a fully developed human being. Such a cell, after all, has the potential to become a fully developed human being. But given our recent advances in the biology of cloning, as much can be said of almost every cell in the human body. By the measure of a cell’s potential, whenever the president scratches his nose he is now engaged in a diabolical culling of souls.

Note (Hal’s):
Cute, but bad science. The nucleus of a clone can come from any cell; the egg into which that nucleus is introduced to produce a zygote remains a minimum requirement. The notion that the potential for life lies in the non-scarce resource, the nuclear chromosomes, is scarcely more sensible than claiming that the element hydrogen, present in all known life forms, has that potential, and that therefore fusion energy inherently involves the destruction of potential life.

One might also explore the possibility that this focus on nuclear DNA represents a form of male chauvinism, similar to the primitive philosophies that attribute all “form” to the male genetic contribution, with the female regarded solely as a source of “substance.”

— end note

text checked (see note) Oct 2007

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