>The End of Faith, Chapter 1


Someone I love very much asked me to read the book, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason by Sam Harris. It was on the NYT Best Sellers list a while back. And now Harris has written a follow-up book. Anyway, as I was remembering some of the things that were discussed at the women’s retreat this weekend, especially about whether or not genuine friendships could exist between people of different political or religious beliefs, I thought about this person who has recently shifted (again) from Christian to agnostic. At the retreat, I had made the statement that yes, I have friends that I don’t agree with on either of these accounts, and they are still dear friends that I love and enjoy being with. I stated that we are supposed to see people as God sees them, as people, made in His image. People to be loved. Period. Not as people to be converted or changed or “fixed.”

So, when this friend asked me to read The End of Faith and to engage in a “non-emotional, rational discussion” about it, I agreed. With one caveat: that they read a book of my choosing (Patmos: A Place of Healing For the Soul by Peter France.) and show me the same respect. They agreed. Game on. (I wrote about the Patmos book here.)

I thought I might do a little “book review in progress” from time to time here on my blog. I’m also writing personal letters to my friend as we discuss these books, but I won’t include the personal aspects here. I would love to hear any thoughts from my readers…. You can post a COMMENT at the end of this post, or send me an email at susanmaryecushman@yahoo.com. If you send me an email, please let me know if you prefer that it remain private, otherwise I might quote from it in a future blog.

Chapter 1: Reason in Exile

Pretty soon into his first chapter, Harris states:

Your beliefs define your vision of the world; they dictate your behavior; they determine your emotional responses to other human beings…. While all faiths have been touched, here and there, by the spirit of ecumenicalism, the central tenet of every religious tradition is that all others are mere repositories of error or, at best, dangerously incomplete. Intolerance is thus intrinsic to every creed. 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.

Makes you stop and think, doesn’t it? Is it possible for me, as an Orthodox Christian, to hold my faith strongly and not judge others who belief differently? If I believe that my faith is the correct one (and the word Orthodox actually means right or straight belief) does that not automatically mean that I believe everyone else is wrong? Or that those I love who don’t believe as I do are missing the boat? And would this belief cause me to behave in certain ways towards those outside that boat? I think it did, and I did, when I was younger. I was probably, by Harris’ definition, a religious extremist.

Harris says that there are two types of religious persons, religious moderates and religious extremists. And then he begins to state his case:

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 ideal 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.

He continues to argue that religious moderates are basically not being honest. And maybe they’re not. He calls them “failed fundamentalists.” Interesting observation. And maybe that’s the path I was on in the early years of my conversion to Orthodoxy. But then he says:

Religious moderation is the product of secular knowledge and scriptural ignorance…. By failing to live by the letter of the texts, while tolerating the irrationality of those who do, religious moderates betray faith and reason equally…. Religious moderation… closes the door to more sophisticated approaches to spirituality, ethics, and the building of strong communities….moderates merely ask that we relax our standards of adherence to ancient superstitions and taboos, while otherwise maintaining a belief system that was passed down to us from men and women whose lives were simply ravaged by their basic ignorance about the world.

I don’t know what men and women he’s referring to… the early Christians, Christ’s disciples, “men who turned the world upside down?” Or the Church Fathers of the following centuries? Men like Ignatius of Antioch, Ambrose of Milan, Basil the Great or Gregory the Theologian? These men’s lives were hardly “ravaged” nor were they ignorant about the world. Maybe Harris would consider me (and other Orthodox Christians) to be religious extremists. By his definitions, I am neither an extremist or moderate. And although his bibliography is impressive, I can’t really believe that he understands the heart of Orthodoxy. Harris begins his apologetic with man, whereas an Orthodox Christian would begin with God. Here’s an example:

…most of us have emotional and spiritual needs that are now addressed—however obliquely and at a terrible price—by mainstream religion. And these are needs that a mere understanding of our world, scientific or otherwise, will never fulfill. There is clearly a sacred dimension to our existence, and coming to terms with it could well be the highest purpose of human life. But we will find that it requires no faith in untestable propositions—Jesus was born of a virgin; the Koran is the word of God—for us to do this.

Again, he begins with man. With man’s needs. Needs that he admits a secular understanding of our world will never fulfill. I’m interested to see where he goes with this… what he will posit as the fulfillment of those needs, if not God.

My apologetic begins with God. God reveals himself to those who seek Him. Whether or not he also reveals himself to those who seek to disprove him is something I have no knowledge of, so I can’t speak to that. (But Peter France speaks to it in his book, Patmos: A Place of Healing for the Soul, actually.)

Back to the religious moderates. Harris says that religious moderates “don’t like the personal and social costs that a full embrace of scripture imposes on us.” I can understand his point. If your reference for relating to others is sola scriptura, a theology limited to the written scriptures, then yes, it’s a high cost to pay. But relating to others based on the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, and a growing relationship with the Son, Jesus Christ, and a life lived seeking the God the Holy Father, isn’t always going to be socially acceptable, either. But it can be a life filled with love for all mankind. I’m certainly not a good example of this, but that doesn’t mean I can’t be…. The Saints we imitate and venerate were consumed with love for their fellow man, regardless of his race, religion, or politics.

The rest of Chapter 1 of Harris’ book deals mainly with the conflicts in Palestine, the Balkans, North Ireland, Kashmir, Sudan, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Sri Lanka, and the Caucasus, of which Harris says:

In these places religion has been the explicit cause of literally millions of deaths in the last ten years.

When he talks about conflicts, wars, genocide, and other horrible suffering caused by religious factions, he says that most Americans aren’t so different than Osama bin Laden, in that we “cherish the idea that certain fantastic propositions can be believed without evidence. Such heroic acts of credulity are thought not only acceptable but redeeming—even necessary.”

Scary accusation. But he spends most of the rest of the chapter quoting from the Koran. Not from Christian Scriptures.

And then he talks about spiritual experiences and psychic phenomena and the ability to “transform the character of our experience.” He states, near the end of his first chapter, that

Spirituality must be deeply rational… Even now we see the first stirrings among psychologists and neuroscientists of what may one day become a genuinely rational approach to these matters.

Reason. That’s where he’s headed next:

We must find our way to a time when faith, without evidence, disgraces anyone who would claim it. Given the present state of the world, there appears to be no other future worth wanting….It is imperative that we begin speaking plainly about the absurdity of most of our religious beliefs.

Whew. I’m going to have to take a breather before reading Chapter 2, “The Nature of Belief.”

For now, I’ll close with a quote that my friend, Doug, uses as his email signature:

“And those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music.” — Fredrich Nietsche

Call me crazy… can you hear the music, Sam?


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