Harris, Sam - The End of Faith

  (09 March 08)

The End of Faith?


A review by John Wessel of The End of Faith by Sam Harris (W.W.Norton, 2005). 

(Reviewed March 2007)

Our world is fast succumbing to the activity of men and women who would take the future of our species on beliefs that should not survive an elementary school education That so many of us are still dying on account of ancient myths is as bewildering as it is horrible, and our own attachment to these myths, whether moderate or extreme, has kept us silent in the face of developments that could ultimately destroy us.

Indeed, religion is as much a living spring of violence today as it was at any time in the past. The recent conflicts in Palestine (Jews V. Muslims), The Balkans (Orthodox Serbians V. Catholic Croations; Orthodox Serbians V. Bosnians and Albanian Muslims), Northern Ireland (Protestants V. Catholics), Kashmir (Muslims V. Hindus), Sudan (Muslims V. Christians and Animists) Nigeria (Muslims V. Christians) Ethiopia and Eritrea (Muslims V. Christians), Sri Lanka (Sinhalese Buddhists V. Tamil Hindus) Indonesia (Muslims V. Timorese Christians) Caucasus (Orthodox Russians V. Chenchen Muslims; Muslim Azerbaijanis V. Catholic and Orthodox Armenians) and Iraq (Muslims V. Christians; Sunni V. Shiites) are merely a few cases in point.

Most of the people of 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. All are in perverse agreement on one point of fundamental importance, however: ‘respect’ for other faiths, or for the view of unbelievers, is not an attitude that God indorses. Once a person believes – really believes – that certain ideas can lead to eternal happiness, or its antithesis, he cannot tolerate the possibility that the people he loves might be led astray by the blandishments of unbelievers.

Give people divergent, irreconcilable and untestable notions about what happens after death, and couple this with belief in a God who has given errant instructions and outcomes in books, and you have the base cause for the death of millions of people in the past ten years.

If we cannot find a way to, at the very least, admit we are not sure whether or not God wrote our books, then we need only to count the days to Armageddon – because God has given us far more reasons to kill one another than to turn the other cheek. We live in an age in which most people believe that the mere words ‘Jesus’, ‘Allah’, ‘Ram’ – can mean the difference between eternal torment and bliss everlasting. What you cannot find in this world you will find in the next.

What one believes happens after death dictates much of what one believes about life. As a man believes, so he will act. Believe that you are members of the chosen people, chosen by God, then all the unchosen are fair game. The results of election are division, prejudice, exclusion and hostility. It is time we acknowledged that no real foundation exists within the canons of (traditional) Christianity, Islam, Judaism or any of our other faiths for religious tolerance and religious diversity. People who harbour strong convictions without (rational) evidence belong at the margins of our societies, not in our halls of power.

The Bible, it seems certain, was the work of sand-strewn men and women who thought the earth was flat and for whom the wheelbarrow would have been a breathtaking example of emerging technology.

If there are right and wrong answers to ethical questions, these answers will best be sought in the living present and not in the myths of the past, especially when these myths are taken literally. We are now killing ourselves over ancient literature. Who would have thought something so tragically absurd could be possible?

We believe most of what we believe about the world because of what others have told us. Each major religion teaches and is convinced of the superiority of its own culture. The evil that has finally reached our shores is not merely the evil of terrorism; it is the evil of the clash of religions and faiths. The enemy is so near to all of us whatever our religion, and so deceptive, that we keep its council even if it threatens to destroy the very possibility of human happiness. Our enemy is nothing other that irrational faith itself in all three monotheistic religions.

The Christian who wants to live in the full presence of rationality and modernity can keep the Jesus of Matthew sermonising upon the mount and simply ignore the world-consuming rigmarole of Revelation. A close reading of Scripture will reveal that this was the basic teaching of Jesus. The days of our religious identities are clearly numbered. Whether the days of civilisation itself are numbered would seem to depend, rather too much, on how soon we realise this.

There is very little we Christians can do, in my view, about other religions – change must come from within those religions although an attitudinal change in our approach and our relationship with them may be a start.

However, within Christianity we can do something. We need to have not so much an aggressive approach but rather a positive and progressive one towards change. For too long we have hidden our light under a bushel; we must come out and be counted.

For just on 2000 years the church has placed its emphasis on the redemption and atonement found in Jesus’ death. It has claimed that with this comes ‘salvation’ from sin into life eternal in the next life. All this has been built on a myth of an ancient story perpetuated by the church to keep its power over people. It has also been accepted by many because, in the midst of tragedy, hate, anger, poverty, sickness and hard times this message does give hope that, if not here on earth, maybe happiness will be found after death. Uncertainty makes us cling to this hope even if it only an ancient myth.

Take the invention of purgatory. For years it taught and people believed that unless you paid your dues you would not get out of this place. People paid for a dead loved one to get out and would ask, “How far out is he now?” An unbaptised child who died would go directly there – this was an invented myth. Then with the stroke of the Papal pen, purgatory no longer existed; did it ever exist? The sacrament of Holy Communion is based on this atonement/ redemption theology as is so much of church preaching and teaching.

We need to stop emphasising the death of Jesus and begin to concentrate on his preaching and teaching, for that in my view is where this world will find its salvation. It will be found in inclusiveness, compassion, justice and love for all people; not in the here-after but in the here-and-now. The here-and-now is all we have and if we valued it more maybe we would be more caring and value not only our own life but the lives of all other people, whatever their religious beliefs.  


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