quotes and notes from
The End of Faith
Sam Harris

Sam Harris

These pages: The End of Faith
Ch. 1 (here)
Chs. 2-3
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

Note (Hal’s):
For the sake of a critical assessment, notes and quotes are extensive. The notes point out some questionable arguments and rhetorical devices. Some are “thought experiments” similar to Harris’s, but reaching contrary conclusions.

Frankly, my most charitable approach to some of this rests on the hope, bolstered by internal inconsistencies, that the author does not mean all he says.

— end note

1. Reason in Exile

Note (Hal’s):

  1. Religious belief inherently makes believers intolerant, therefore oppressive and violent.
  2. Advances in methods of violence make it impossible to continue to tolerate intolerance, therefore we can no longer tolerate religious belief.
  3. Actually, some religious believers (here called “moderates”) are not intolerant. They are worse than the others, because they get in the way of blaming religious belief for intolerance, oppression and violence.

— end note

A belief is a lever that, once pulled, moves almost everything else in a person’s life. [...] Your beliefs define your vision of the world; they dictate your behavior; they determine your emotional responses to other human beings.

Our situation is this: most of the people in this world believe that the Creator of the universe has written a book. We have the misfortune of having many such books on hand, each making an exclusive claim as to its infallibility. People tend to organize themselves into factions according to which of these incompatible claims they accept—rather than on the basis of language, skin color, location of birth, or any other criterion of tribalism. Each of these texts urges its readers to adopt a variety of beliefs and practices, some of which are benign, many of which are not. All are in perverse agreement on one point of fundamental importance, however: “respect” for other faiths, or for the views of unbelievers, is not an attitude that God endorses. [...] Once a person believes—really believes—that certain ideas can lead to eternal happiness, or to its antithesis, he cannot tolerate the possibility that the people he loves might be led astray by the blandishments of unbelievers. Certainty about the next life is simply incompatible with tolerance in this one.



We can no longer ignore the fact that billions of our neighbors believe in the metaphysics of martyrdom, or in the literal truth of the book of Revelation, or any of the other fantastical notions that have lurked in the minds of the faithful for millennia—because our neighbors are now armed with chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons. There is no doubt that these developments mark the terminal phase of our credulity. Words like “God” and “Allah” must go the way of “Apollo” and “Baal,” or they will unmake our world.
One of the central themes of this book, however, is that religious moderates are themselves the bearers of a terrible dogma: they imagine that the path to peace will be paved once each of us has learned to respect the unjustified beliefs of others. I hope to show that the very idea of religious tolerance—born of the notion that every human being should be free to believe whatever he wants about God—is one of the principal forces driving us toward the abyss.
As long as a Christian believes that only his baptized brethren will be saved on the Day of Judgment, he cannot possibly “respect” the beliefs of others, for he knows that the flames of hell have been stoked by these very ideas and await their adherents even now.

Compare to:

C. S. Lewis

The Myth of “Moderation” in Religion

Note (Hal’s):

  1. Religous moderation (as defined by the author, i.e. being religious but not intolerant) compromises both faith and reason. It compromises faith by not being intolerant. It compromises reason by being religious.
  2. Religious moderates tolerate religions the author doesn’t want tolerated.
  3. By demonstrating tolerance, religous moderates undercut the respectability of intolerance, including the author’s.

At this point, one needs to remind oneself that the original reason for objecting to religious belief was that it led to intolerance.

— end note

The doors leading out of scriptural literalism do not open from the inside. The moderation we see among nonfundamentalists is not some sign that faith itself has evolved; it is, rather, the product of the many hammer blows of modernity that have exposed certain tenets of faith to doubt. Not the least among these developments has been the emergence of our tendency to value evidence and to be convinced by a proposition to the degree that there is evidence for it. [...]

Religious moderation springs from the fact that even the least educated person among us simply knows more about certain matters than anyone did two thousand years ago—and much of this knowledge is incompatible with scripture.

From the perspective of those seeking to live by the letter of the texts, the religious moderate is nothing more than a failed fundamentalist. He is, in all likelihood, going to wind up in hell with the rest of the unbelievers. The problem that religious moderation poses for all of us is that it does not permit anything very critical to be said about religious literalism. We cannot say that fundamentalists are crazy, because they are merely practicing their freedom of belief; we cannot even say that they are mistaken in religious terms, because their knowledge of scripture is generally unrivaled. All we can say, as religious moderates, is that we don’t like the personal and social costs that a full embrace of scripture imposes on us. This is not a new form of faith, or even a new species of scriptural exegesis; it is simply a capitulation to a variety of all-too-human interests that have nothing, in principle, to do with God.
Religious moderation, insofar as it represents an attempt to hold on to what is still serviceable in orthodox religion, closes the door to more sophisticated approaches to spirituality, ethics, and the building of strong communities. Religious moderates seem to believe that what we need is not radical insight and innovation in these areas but a mere dilution of Iron Age philosophy.
The Shadow of the Past

The point is that most of what we currently hold sacred is not sacred for any reason other than that it was thought sacred yesterday. Surely, if we could create the world anew, the practice of organizing our lives around untestable propositions found in ancient literature—to say nothing of killing and dying for them—would be impossible to justify. What stops us from finding it impossible now?

The Burden of Paradise

Our world is fast succumbing to the activities of men and women who would stake the future of our species on beliefs that should not survive an elementary school education.

Muslim Extremism

Because they are believed to be nothing less than verbatim transcripts of God’s utterances, texts like the Koran and the Bible must be appreciated, and criticized, for any possible interpretations to which they are susceptible—and to which they will be subjected with varying emphases and elisions, throughout the religious world.

Note (Hal’s):
This boils down to insisting that “straw man” arguments, founded on material drawn out of context, are not only acceptable but necessary.

— end note

We live in an age in which most people believe that mere words—“Jesus,” “Allah,” “Ram”—can mean the difference between eternal torment and bliss everlasting. Considering the stakes here, it is not surprising that many of us occasionally find it necessary to murder other human beings for using the wrong magic words, or the right ones for the wrong reasons. How can any person presume to know that this is the way the universe works? Because it says so in our holy books.

Death: The Fount of Illusions

Without death, the influence of faith-based religion would be unthinkable. Clearly, the fact of death is intolerable to us, and faith is little more than the shadow cast by our hope for a better life beyond the grave.

Compare to:

J.R.R. Tolkien



The World beyond Reason

The claims of mystics are neurologically quite astute. No human being has ever experienced an objective world, or even a world at all. You are, at this moment, having a visionary experience. The world that you see and hear is nothing more than a modification of your consciousness, the physical status of which remains a mystery. [...] We really are such stuff as dreams are made of. Our waking and dreaming brains are engaged in substantially the same activity; it is just that while dreaming, our brains are far less constrained by sensory information or by the fact-checkers who appear to live somewhere in our frontal lobes. This is not to say that sensory experience offers us no indication of reality at large; it is merely that, as a matter of experience, nothing arises in consciousness that has not first been structured, edited, or amplified by the nervous system. While this gives rise to a few philosophical problems concerning the foundations of our knowledge, it also offers us a remarkable opportunity to deliberately transform the character of our experience.

For every neuron that receives its input from the outside world, there are ten to a hundred others that do not. The brain is therefore talking mostly to itself [...]. Your brain is tuned to deliver the vision of the world that you are having at this moment. At the heart of most spiritual traditions lurks the entirely valid claim that it can be tuned differently.

Coming to Terms with Belief
Religious moderates are, in large part, responsible for the religious conflict in our world, because their beliefs provide the context in which spiritual literalism and religious violence can never be adequately opposed.

Note (Hal’s):
What is adequate? Censorship? Criminalization? Thought control? Mass murder? If we reject moderation in all religions, I take it that applies to atheism as well?

— end note

Given the link between belief and action, it is clear that we can no more tolerate a diversity of religious beliefs than a diversity of beliefs about epidemiology and basic hygiene.

Note (Hal’s):
Of course, if there had never been diversity of beliefs about epidemiology, that science would not exist.

— end note


Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Gathering Our Wits

It is imperative that we begin speaking plainly about the absurdity of most of our religious beliefs. [...] I pray that we may one day think clearly enough about these matters to render our children incapable of killing themselves over their books.

Note (Hal’s):
“I pray”? To whom? This is an atheist book.

— end note

text checked (see note) Oct 2007

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