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 Will Faith Destroy Us All? 

March 29, 2005 
The world would be a better, safer place for everyone if we all gave up religion, which is all fanatical superstition. This is especially true of Christianity, which led to the Holocaust and sexual repression and stuff, and Islam, which produces terrorism. Read Joe's columns the day he writes them.Judaism is also pretty bad in principle, but it hasn’t done as much harm.

Or so I’m informed by a new book by Sam Harris, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason (published by Norton). He studied philosophy at Stanford and is now working on a doctorate in neuroscience. He seems to support the War on Terror and he doesn’t seem to care for Noam Chomsky.

Harris calls hopefully for an “end of faith,” but he doesn’t really think it’s going to happen in the near future. In fact he fears that “the end of civilization itself” may occur before we wise up about religion. And it will be religion that destroys us, of course.

This is very much a young man’s book, naively apocalyptic and urgently trying to save the world. Harris tells us he started writing it on September 12, 2001, which, you’ll recall, followed shortly after September 11, 2001, and the reader gathers he hasn’t calmed down yet. He finds atheism an exciting new idea, when of course by now it’s rather quaint.

Communism was an exciting new idea not so long ago — atheistic, rational, “scientific,” and all that — but Harris hardly mentions it. Why not? If you’re going to harp on the “lethal” potential of religion, you should spare a chapter for the lethal actuality of atheistic ideologies. But Harris is too preoccupied with the horrors of the Middle Ages to notice the horrors of more recent history. To read him, you’d think the popes had killed more people than Stalin.

[Breaker quote: An atheist’s apocalypse]But Harris takes care of communism by dismissing it as “little more than a political religion.” Well, if atheistic communism counts as a form of religion, religion doesn’t stand much of a chance of winning this argument, does it? Nothing can shake Harris’s own faith, which is that a world of atheists would be a lot more sane than the world as we know it. This belief can hardly claim to be empirically verified. The history of the twentieth century suggests otherwise.

Naturally, the book comes warmly blurbed by the usual suspects — the philosopher Peter Singer and the lawyer Alan Dershowitz, who says it “demonstrates” how “faith ... threatens our very existence.” Among the menaces Dershowitz sees is “the secular fanaticism of Noam Chomsky.” Not him again!

By the way, poor Noam Chomsky. What a reputation he’s gotten. I first heard of him in the Sixties, when a professor of mine mentioned that he was both a genius in his field (linguistics) and a prominent critic of the Vietnam War. After reading a few of his books, I met him and found not the ferocious customer I’d expected, but a man you’d have a pleasant chat with in the faculty lounge. Now he’s a threat to civilization?

Anyway, people do get the strangest ideas, especially about other people’s ideas. If you press hard enough, almost any idea, even the Pythagorean theorem, can appear “dangerous.” Harris never explains just what’s dangerous about the Sermon on the Mount, but I suppose that kind of thinking led to the Holocaust. Or maybe it led to Alan Dershowitz, which is alarming enough.

One thing I learned in college is that a sharp philosophy major can prove just about anything. Harris’s book illustrates this well. Religious faith may soon lead to “the end of civilization itself”? Well, I can remember when people were saying the same thing about Elvis Presley, and I still can’t swear they didn’t have a point. With all due respect to Elvis, only time will tell.

The expression leads to should be used sparingly. Identifying historical causes is hard enough; predicting them is harder. In the real world, anything can lead to anything. Karl Marx sits in a library formulating the labor theory of value, and a few generations later millions of Russians are freezing in labor camps. Physicists discover the latent energy of the atom, and Harry Truman puts this idea to work in Hiroshima. And don’t even get me started on Pythagoras.

Joseph Sobran

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