The End of Faith

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Photo of Sam Harris, 2010

The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason is a 2004 book by Sam Harris. It is one of the earliest books within the new atheism movement. The main themes of the book are:

  • Religious fundamentalism and scriptural literalism are responsible for countless deaths, atrocities and social harm throughout history. This is particularly relevant in the contemporary Muslim world. Claiming to have exclusive access to truth is intolerant.
  • Moderate religion enables religious fundamentalism by spreading ideas like having faith without evidence. It also gets in the way of exploring our spirituality without the limitations of religious dogma.
  • Ethics should be based on promoting human happiness and reducing suffering, which in turn requires spiritual living. Spiritual experiences provide a way to obtain empirical knowledge.
  • Evidence should be the basis for our beliefs. Religion lacks evidence for their dogma.
  • Concern that advanced weaponry might fall into the hands of fundamentalists. Some believers of dangerous ideas may need to be killed or tortured, if fundamentalist religion cannot reform itself.
  • General support for United States military actions around the world, saying they have "good intent". He does acknowledge the U.S. government has often committed atrocities.
  • Muslim extremism can be primarily explained by the violent sections (and the relative lack of peaceful sections) in the Koran.

Many of the points proved to be controversial, which prompted Harris to produce a "response to controversy" document. [1]


Reason in exile[edit]

The book begins with an anecdotal account of a suicide bombing. His inclusion of gruesome details is a rhetorical technique of misleading vividness to appeal to the reader's emotions. He mentions that the hypothetical community has sympathy with the hypothetical bomber's actions. He points out that little can be inferred about the bomber's biography apart from, according to Harris, his religion. This ignores the use of suicide tactics by other groups, such as Japanese Kamikaze pilots in World War 2 and the Tamil Tigers from the late 1980s.[2]

"There seems, however, to be a problem with some of our most cherished beliefs about the world: they are leading us, inexorably, to kill one another. [...] it is what we do with worlds like "God" and "paradise" and "sin" in the present that will determine our future."

Suicide bombers originate in a geographically limited area, implying they are motivated by local problems rather than solely their religious belief. If religious belief necessarily lead to violence, then we would expect to see the distribution of violence match the distribution of the religious belief in question. If Harris means "Islam causes violence", then the facts don't support his point.

Chris Hedges takes issue with Harris's implication that the parents of suicide bombers celebrate the event (Harris doesn't explicitly mention that parents in this section):

"His assertion that Muslim parents welcome the death of children as suicide bombers could only have been written by someone who never sat in the home of a grieving mother and father in Gaza who have just lost their child.[3]"

Harris observes that most religions claim that they are the one true religion and they don't teach respect for another's religion.

"Intolerance is thus intrinsic to every creed. [...] Certainty about the next life is simply incompatible with tolerance in this one."

Harris then observes that criticizing religious belief is largely taboo. The development of powerful weapons means that religious belief has the potential to be "antithetical to our survival". He expresses the need that religious belief will become obsolete, like the study of alchemy. Atheism is not to be considered an "alternative" to religion, just as alchemy is not an "alternative" chemistry.

Religious belief is on a continuum, including moderate and extremist belief. However, he claims that religious moderates are promoting harmful ideas, such as the respect for unjustified belief. While religion is harmful to society, it escapes criticism because of the belief religion has positive aspects and the bad actions are due to "our baser natures-forces like greed, hatred, and fear". He dismisses the possibility that theist acceptance that "all religions are equally valid" is anything more than superficial.

"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 theirs, for he knows that the flames of hell have been stoked by these very ideas and await their adherents even now."

Harris emphases that belief that is exclusively correct is automatically intolerant of any alternative beliefs (but what about exclusive truth of empiricism?). However, this is arguably an over-broad usage of the word intolerance. For example, belief in the efficacy of mainstream medicine is usually thought to be exclusively true, but not automatically intolerant of people holding other views. Also, according to Harris, intolerance seems to be a "thought crime" since it only involves holding an opinion. (This argument could be reversed onto atheists by saying atheists are closed minded.)

Harris argues that our Western idea of the compatibility of religion and reason is only possibly because of the subjugation of religion. In more theocratic societies, they are often considered incompatible. While religion does address a spiritual need in humans, it fails to provide a proper understanding of our world.

"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."

The Myth of "Moderation" in Religion[edit]

The author observes that religions are often influenced by one another, in rituals, iconography and belief. He counts this as evidence that none are the one true religion, because he (perhaps rightly) assumes that a true religion would spring into existence from divine revelation, rather than earthly influences. He makes the argument from religious impermanence. Harris states some statistics about the acceptance of Biblical literalism and creationism in the United States and speculates that other cultures have similar belief in their religious doctrines. He defines a religious moderate in terms of their cherry picking of scripture:

"Moderates in every faith are obliged to loosely interpret (or simply ignore) much of their canons in the interests of living in the modern world. [...] From the perspective of those seeking to live by the letter of the texts, the religious moderate is nothing more than a failed fundamentalist. [...] Religious moderation is the produce of secular knowledge and scriptural ignorance-and it has no bona fides, in religious terms, to put it on a par with fundamentalism."

However, religious texts are generally contradictory, so even fundamentalists need to loosely interpret their texts in certain places. On the other hand, moderates arguably cherry pick to a greater extent. He also assumes, probably rightly, that all religious texts are incompatible with modern culture and values unless they are selectively used. He observes that theists often have a poor understanding of scripture, so the omissions are rarely noticed, such as the death penalty for heresy. Harris calls religious moderation a simple "neglect" of divine law and a result of modern culture and scientific knowledge making literalism untenable. Harris anticipates that advances in science will eventually replace our outdated understanding of spiritual and ethical understanding as well. He also notes that religious belief is not backed by reliable evidence. Moderate religion legitimizes fundamentalism because it prevents criticism of literalism. It also lacks any preventative measure to avoid believers becoming radicalized. He calls moderate religion just as bad as fundamentalism because:

"By failing to live by the letter of the texts, while tolerating the irrationality of those that do, religious moderates betray faith and reason equally."

Firstly, it is unreasonable to call a religious moderate just as irrational as a fundamentalist, since they accept many modern developments in knowledge. Secondly, what does it matter to a skeptic if religious moderates adhere to a particular scripture?

Harris writes dismissively of moderate religion, called it "failed", half-hearted and illegitimate, when compared to literalism. He is here adopting the interpretation of the fundamentalists as to what constitutes religion (argument from authority). However, we don't have any reason to agree with fundamentalists as to what constitutes religion. Moderate religion is a valid form of religion to billions of people (appeal to majority). He has not found suitable grounds to dismiss moderate religion as illegitimate or unworthy of examination in its own right.

By accepting the fundamentalist interpretation of scripture as the valid or true interpretation, Harris may be inadvertently adding authority to their claims, at least among those with a predisposition to religious belief. An alternative tactic is to argue that holy books can be interpreted in any way you choose to believe, which might enables peoples' consciences to influence their behavior for the better.

He then goes on to list the social costs of moderate religion, in their obstruction of our development of ethics, spirituality and strong communities. This section is rather lacking in detail. The church's influence has waned considerably in industrialized countries and it is unclear how the church can prevent individuals addressing these issues themselves or governments to enact these policies.

By drawing a comparison between spiritual and other forms of knowledge (or perhaps it is just the author's assertion), Harris expects that both should be susceptible to advancement.

"If religion addresses a genuine sphere of understanding and human necessity, then it should be susceptible to progress."

This is doubtful statement for spiritual or ethical non-cognitivists, since "progress" does not apply to something that is not really knowledge at all. Harris repeats that moderate religion tries to prevent criticism of fundamentalism (without any data).

"And they do not want anything too critical said about people who really believe in the God of their fathers, because tolerance, perhaps above all else, is sacred."

He also seems to equate tolerance with avoidance of criticism, which is highly questionable use of terminology.

"We must finally recognize the price we are paying to maintain the iconography of our ignorance."

The Shadow of the Past[edit]

If all human knowledge was suddenly lost, Harris speculates that religions would not be reconstructed in their present forms since we would have no evidence to distinguish between them. Religion many have been the social bond in society but other mechanisms have replaced them. He suggests that lack of evidence was the root cause of many historic injustices and atrocities.

"In fact, almost every indignity just mentioned can be attributes to an insufficient taste for evidence, to an uncritical faith in one dogma or another."

Chris Hedges questions if evil could be overcome in this way because humans are fundamentally constrained by their psychology and cannot act in a consistently rational manner.[3]

Harris takes the position that evidence can answer moral questions, which is difficult to accept because of the is-ought problem. Even secular morality requires some assumptions or dogma. Even if furnished with all relevant evidence, humans are subject to greed, pride and other emotions.

The Burden of Paradise[edit]

Harris lists a number of conflicts that he claims religion is an "explicit cause". He seems to ignore that many of them are primarily ethnic or political conflicts (with some religious dimension). One reviewer commented: "In that banal sense you can find religion in every conflict".[4] Chris Hedges disputed his former Yugoslavia example.[3] He particularly mentions the cause of India and Pakistan; both are nuclear armed, highly religious and prone to conflict. Harris is not alone in portraying the conflict as primarily religious, [5] but the conflict has many factors, not just religious. Harris then turns to Islam, which he considers to be a "unique danger", specifically those who are observant of Islamic doctrine. He claims literalism and particularly martyrdom motivated Al-Qaeda to attack the US. These probably were factors but their significance is controversial. Harris ignores the role of Western militarism in the Middle East (this is discussed later), and the presence of Western military bases in Saudi Arabia (this is mentioned later)[6], as major factors in Al-Qaeda's activities (he addresses it briefly in the next section).

"The concessions we have made to religious faith-to the idea that belief can be sanctified by something other than evidence-have rendered us unable to name, much less address, one of the most pervasive causes of conflict in our world."

Harris again implies that evidence can justify all belief, presumably including ethical and spiritual belief. Ironically, he has not backed up this point-and how could he, given the Münchhausen trilemma?. Harris says in a later chapter: "We cannot live by reason alone" and also some brute facts are unavoidable. Perhaps he would have done better to state his evidentialism is one of these brute facts. One critic wrote:

"I can loudly proclaim that evidence is the only criteria which is ultimately convincing. But is this idea itself derived wholly from evidence? Of course not. It is the barest of bare assertions. [...] In demanding that all truth claims be validated purely by evidence, Harris violates his own conditions. [7]"

Muslim Extremism[edit]

For more information, see the Wikipedia article:
Harris blames extremism on the violence sections in the Qur'an
"[...] Muslim "extremists" are actually extreme. There are extreme in their faith."

Isn't that a tautology? Harris's view is similar to the clash of civilizations hypothesis, which is that conflicts are primarily driven by differences in religious or cultural identity. He dismisses Western imperialism as the cause of extremism (mainly in a footnote), saying Saudi Arabia (allegedly not colonially controlled) is doing better than nearby countries with former direct colonial control (Egypt). He also agrees with the quote that the United States government supports Muslim populations, such as Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Iraqi Shia, Afgahi mujahideen:

"In all of recent history, no country on earth has fought so hard and consistently as the United States on behalf of Muslim populations.[8]"

It is laughable to argue that US interventions in the Middle East were primarily motivated by protection of civilians and not control of oil resources. Noam Chomsky argues that US policy since World War 2 has explicitly sought (and gained) hegemonic control over the Americans, most of Europe and the Middle East.[9] The more recent US-Iraq war was for oil. [10] The current Syria conflict is largely a proxy war over access to oil pipeline routes.[11] The civilian populations that have "benefited" from US interventions generally are in worse conditions than ever with minimal human rights. A reviewer commented:

"Here, we’re travelling deep into wingnut teritory [...] For Harris, any attempt to explain the puzzling hostility of Muslims to the Great White Father in Washington fails unless it begins by delving into the more blood-thirsty passages in the Koran. [...] If you accept (as seems self-evidently true) that US adventures in the Middle East are largely responsible for the increasing numbers of people in the area embracing Islamism, then the apologetics for American foreign policy contained in Harris’ so-called atheism only make religion stronger.[4]"

Harris also says terrorism is motivated by Muslim "humiliation" by their civilization being controlled by what they perceive as "sin-loving" "barbarians". He does mention the US bases in Saudi Arabia, which was perceived by some extremists as occupation by infidels. Harris says "These are purely theological grievances". However, occupation by foreign military forces is quite likely to increase unrest, even without a theological basis. He speculates that if the West generally converted to Islam, their hated would cease. This is highly doubtful while Western militarism continues, which is the actual cause. He then cites the anecdotal motivation of a suicide bomber to gain martyrdom. However anecdotes can't be generalized to entire groups.

"[...]I take it to be self-evident that ordinary people cannot be moved to burn genial old scholars alive for blaspheming the Koran, or celebrate the violent deaths of children, unless they believe some improbable things about the nature of the universe."
For more information, see the Wikipedia article:

While this has an element of truth, Islam does not have a monopoly on propaganda. Many societies are told by authorities that some minority or external group is the enemy, and do terrible things as a result. The Milgram experiment shows that most normal people can easily be manipulated into delivering a what they believe is a lethal electric shock to another person (who is an actor in the experiment).

"It is clear, however, that Muslims hate the West in the very terms of their faith and that the Koran mandates such hated."

Harris didn't qualify the term "Muslims", but he seems to mean "fundamentalist Muslims", as he goes on to say moderate Muslims reject this view (as if moderate Muslims are not true Muslims). However, not all fundamentalist Muslims are concerned with politics. The majority within the Salafi movement are more concerned with personal piety than carrying out terrorism. His does not cite evidence to support his point that (fundamentalist) Muslims hate the West. He does not connect the alleged hatred with the inclination toward terrorism.

He then points out the violent sections in the Koran Surah 9:73 Bible-icon.png Surah 9:123 Bible-icon.png Surah 4:95-101 Bible-icon.png Surah 4:74-78 Bible-icon.png and claims the "Koran mandates hatred", while ignoring the peaceful sections and the Bible is comparable in violent content.[12] On the other hand, the later writings of the Bible tend to be more peaceful, while the later writings (chronologically) of the Koran are more violent, in contrast to the rest of the book.

"[...]religious fundamentalism in the developing world is not, principally, a movement of the poor and uneducated"

This is asserted without evidence. If Harris means that Islamic terrorists are generally not poor and uneducated, this too is a complex question. He is perhaps right in saying that poverty itself does not generally inspire terrorism. The causes of religious extremism are certainly a matter of controversy.

"Virtually all suicide bombings are linked to political causes or grievances"

— Encyclopedia Britannica[13]

Harris keeps attempting to link suicide bombing with Islam:

"Subtract the Muslim belief in martyrdom and jihad, and the actions of suicide bombers become completely unintelligible, a does the spectacle of public jubilation that invariably follows their deaths [...]"

Suicide tactics occur outside of Islam, so it is apparently intelligible outside this context. It is questionable if the public or the bomber's family sincerely support these celebrations, or if they are being coerced by extremists for political ends. In any case, Harris provides no evidence or specifics as to when this occurs. He dismisses moderate apologists claims that suicide is forbidden in Islam (as if their interpretation is less valid).

For more information, see the Wikipedia article:

Support for suicide tactics against civilians is mixed throughout the Muslim world. In 2007, there was 70% support among Muslims in the Palestinian Territories for suicide bombings being "sometimes or often" justified against civilians. By 2014, support had fallen to 48%.[14] In most other countries support for suicide bombings is low, with exceptions like Bangladesh at 47% and Afganistan 39%[15]. Support is somewhat lower in western countries: US Muslims 8% support, France 16% (in 2007 data). [16] These polls are based on self professed Muslims, rather than fundamentalist Muslims that Sam Harris is generally referring to. It is unclear what polling data or other evidence is available to quantify fundamentalist support for suicide bombing. Fundamentalism in doctrine does not necessarily equate to support for terrorism. Rather than rely on stereotypes we should, as Harris says in other sections, rely on evidence.

The Koran does call for the global dominion of Islam Surah 8:39 Bible-icon.png. What is debatable is how many Muslims actually let this motivate their behavior. Harris says that it is not sufficient to use individual verses to rebut a literalist's view, because they can still rely on the violent verses. He says the only alternative is to subject the entire book to rigorous standards of evidence, and presumably then to reject it as erroneous. Implicitly, he does not accept that a non-literalist view of religion is viable. He briefly mentions the arguments: "My holy book says my holy book is true" and the argument from religious teachings.

Accusation of racism or Islamophobia

Harris's characterization of Muslims has been called racist or Islamophobic by several critics:

"While they attempt to couch their language in the terms of pure critique of religious thought, in practice [the new atheists] exhibit many of the same tendencies toward generalisation and ethno-racial condescension as did their predecessors - particularly in their descriptions of Muslims. To be utterly clear, Islam itself does not denote a race, and Muslims themselves come from every racial and ethnic grouping in the world. However, in their ostensibly impartial critiques of "religion" - and through the impartation of ethno-cultural attributes onto members of a religious group - the most prominent new atheists slide with ease into the most virulent racism imaginable. [...] Again, while Islam is not a race, those who are identified with Islam are the predominantly black and brown people who would be caught up in the charge of "looking Muslim" which Harris makes. [...] Citing "Muslims" as a solid monolith of violent evil - whilst neglecting to include the countless Muslims who have lost their lives peacefully protesting the occupation and ongoing ethnic cleansing of their homeland - Harris engages in a nuanced version of the same racism which his predecessors in scientific racism practiced in their discussion of the blanket characteristics of "Negroes". [17]"
"That said, what I did say in my emails with Harris - and what I unequivocally affirm again now - is not that Harris is a "racist", but rather that he and others like him spout and promote Islamophobia under the guise of rational atheism.[...] The key point is that Harris does far, far more than voice criticisms of Islam as part of a general critique of religion. He has repeatedly made clear that he thinks Islam is uniquely threatening [...][18]"

Harris argues against the accusation by saying Islam is not a racial label, that he also criticizes other religions and a belief system like Islam should not itself by protected from criticism.

"My criticism of the logical and behavioral consequences of certain ideas (e.g. martyrdom, jihad, blasphemy, honor, etc.) impugns white converts to Islam—like Adam Gadahn—every bit as much as it does Arabs like Ayman al-Zawahiri. [...] I am also in the habit of making invidious comparisons between Islam and other religions, such as Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. [...] And, unlike a person’s racial characteristics or gender, beliefs can be argued for, tested, criticized, and changed. In fact, wherever the norms of rational conversation are allowed to do their work, beliefs must earn respect.[...] Am I saying that Islam is the worst religion across the board? No. Again, one must always focus on the specific consequences of specific ideas.[1]"

Death: The Fount of Illusions[edit]

This section contains musings on the psychology of understanding (or more likely avoiding understanding) one's own mortality. This is the emotional component of the argument from the inconceivability of personal annihilation.

"Clearly, the fact of death is intolerable to use, and faith is little more than the shadow cast by our hope for a better life beyond the grave."

The World beyond Reason[edit]

Harris points out that spiritual experiences do not justify any text as sacred. He regards many of these experiences as worthwhile, as well as "factual":

"Such experiences are "spiritual" or "mystical," for want of a better words, in that they are relatively rare (unnecessarily so), significant (in that they uncover genuine facts about the world), and personally transformative. [...] There also seems to be a body of data attesting to the reality of psychic phenomena, much of which has been ignored by mainstream science."

He argues that spirituality should be explored without the "provincialism and dogmatism" of religion. The call to investigate psychic phenomena is perhaps surprising but he points out that the universe is usually far stranger than we realize. Harris provides a number of references of these alleged phenomena in the notes. It is an open question as to the amount of scientific resources should be dedicated to investigating fringe theories. He does maintain some skepticism because he cites the maxim "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence". He points out the impossibility of a human having objective experiences, due to our psychological limitations.

"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."

Harris points out that not all states of consciousness are equal, and some are simply psychotic. He predicts that the science will advance its understanding in the area of spiritual experiences. He also sees a profound compatibility of reason and spiritual experiences, even if spirituality can sometimes transcend reason.

Coming to Terms with Belief[edit]

The author argues that belief is not a private affair because belief motivates action and those actions affect everyone around the believer.

"As a man believes, so he will act. Believe that you are the member of a chosen people, awash in the salacious exports of an evil culture that is turning your children away from God, believe that you will be rewarded with an eternity of unimaginable delights by dealing death to these infidels-and flying a plane into a building is scarcely more than a matter of being asked to do it. If follows, then, that certain beliefs are intrinsically dangerous.[...] Given the link between belief and action, it is clear that we can no longer tolerate a diversity of religious beliefs than a diversity of beliefs about epidemiology or basic hygiene."

One of the examples he gives is faith healing replacing medicine is clearly negligent. Enforcing belief is contrary to freedom of belief, which while being arguably dangerous and unsustainable, is a core human right. Harris again calls for an evidence based approach to understanding scripture but it is doubtful if this will influence any fundamentalist to change their views. Harris does call for intolerance of belief rather than intolerance of the believers. His chosen method is to identify harmful beliefs and "subject them to sustained criticism". This seems rather a mild remedy considering the language Harris has used throughout the chapter. The effectiveness of this approach is also debatable. In chapter 2, he says it might be necessary to kill people with certain beliefs.

"Every sphere of genuine discourse must, at a minimum, admit of discourse-and hence the possibility that those standing on its fringe can come to understand the truths that it strives to articulate."

Harris attempts to justify this statement by saying spirituality and ethics tends to converge on the same insights. This is rather like using the commonality of morality across cultures to justify moral realism, which overlooks significant differences in moral systems between and within cultures. This also implies that a person should abide by the common insights into morality, which is an argumentum ad populum and ignores the is-ought problem. He notes that theology in multiple religious does not converge on any particular insights.

He briefly discusses some harmful religious beliefs, such as religiously mandated clothing for women.

Gathering our Wits[edit]

Harris expresses concern over the religiosity of US government officials, saying this too is harmful. He predicts that unless humans change their beliefs generally, they will drive themselves to extinction, given recent technological advances. Reliance on evidence based decisions is reiterated.

"This spirit of mutual inquiry is the very antithesis of religious faith."

This might influence people with open minds but will it be effective on literalism and fundamentalism? (See apologetics is effective.) From what Harris said earlier in the chapter about modern knowledge making ancient knowledge obsolete, it would also seem that widespread education about science and history is even more central to combat fundamentalism.

The Nature of Belief[edit]

Chapter 2 provides some insights into the psychology of belief and the ways it can be mislead.

"Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them. [...] Certain beliefs place their adherents beyond the read of every peaceful means of persuasion, while inspiring them to commit acts of extraordinary violence against others. [...] This is what the United States attempted in Afghanistan [...]"

This calls for thought crimes to be punished.

"To believe that God exists is to believe that I stand in some relation to his existence such that his existence is itself the reason for my belief."
  • Apologists do not apply the same standard of evidence for theological and everyday beliefs.
  • Faith is a consolation
  • Faith is defined as "belief, in the absence of evidence". Apologists take issue with him using a definition of the word "faith" that they themselves reject. 'In fact, biblical faith is not equivalent to “intellectual belief” at all.' [7]
  • Faith is not justified because it is by definition based on "things unseen". Hebrews 11:1 Bible-icon.png
  • Faith lacks any possible falsification, it often concerns matters for which there is no surviving evidence.
  • Religiously motivated medical neglect is rational from the point of view of those who hold particular religious beliefs.
  • Because they are unjustified and harmful, religious beliefs should be stigmatized:
"Religious unreason should acquire an even greater stigma [than conspiracy theories] in our discourse, given that it remains among the principal causes of armed conflict in our world."

How beliefs about ethical values are formed is not explicitly addressed and it seems difficult to form those beliefs from evidence alone (i.e. the is-ought problem).

In the Shadow of God[edit]

  • Describes the witchcraft trials in Europe and North America.
  • Use of torture and capital punishment by the Inquisition
  • These actions were Biblically motivated, particular by Deuteronomy and acceptance of certain religious beliefs
  • Suppression of heresy by force
"Whenever a man imagines that he need only believe the truth of a proposition, without evidence-that unbelievers will go to hell, that Jews drink the blood of infants-he becomes capable of anything."
"And while the hatred of Jews in Germany expressed itself in a predominantly secular way, it was a direct inheritance from medieval Christianity. For centuries, religious Germans had viewed the Jews as the worst species of heretics and attributed every societal ill to their continued presence among the faithful. [...] German Catholics showed themselves remarkably acquiescent to a racist creed that was at cross-purposes with at least one of their core beliefs: for if baptism truly had the power to redeem, then Jewish converts should have been considered saved without residue in the eyes of the church."
  • The Catholic Church collaborated with the Nazis to given them access to genealogical records, which shows the ancestry of suspected Jews.
  • No Catholic German was excommunicated before, during or after the war for their actions, which included genocide and war crimes.
"Our common humanity is reason enough to protect our fellow human beings from coming to harm."

The Problem with Islam[edit]

Harris compares violence in Islam to Jainism and claims some religions are more harmful than others. He notes the accomplishments in the Islamic golden age but argues that this does not exonerate an entire religion. He then explains why he dismisses the conventional view of the causes of religious extremism:

"[...]the starting point I have chosen for this book-that of a single suicide bomber [...] ignores most of what commentators on the Middle Easts have said about the roots of Muslim violence. It ignores the painful history of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. It ignores the collusion of Western powers with corrupt dictatorships. It ignores the endemic poverty and lack of economic opportunity that now plague to Arab world. But I will argue that we can ignore all of these things-or treat the only to place them on the shelf-because the world is filled with poor, uneducated, and exploited peoples who do not commit acts of terrorism[...]"

This is doubtful and lacking in specifics. Which other countries are treated as the same way as the Middle East by the US? In earlier chapters, he mentions South America (which is also rather vague). It also does not account for the instances in history in which terrorists have been brought to the negotiating table by ending their oppression, such as the IRA in Ireland, Nelson Mandela in South Africa, etc. [19]

He continues to refer to literalist, fundamentalist Islam as simply "Islam".

"We are at war with Islam. [...] 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 [...]"

That is a little hard to believe while Saudi Arabia is the main promoter of Islamic fundamentalism globally and a key ally of the United States.

A Fringe without a Center[edit]

"The truth, however, is that most Muslims appear to be "fundamentalist" in the Western sense of the world-in even "moderate" approaches to Islam generally consider the Koran to be the literal and inerrant word of the one true God."
For more information, see the Wikipedia article:

It is probably true that most Muslims, including mainstream Muslims, believe that the Koran is the direct word of God. However, it is obvious that mainstream Muslims don't share the same interpretation as extremists. The Koran, even if thought to be the word of God, can be interpreted in multiple ways. Most Muslims use a scholarly interpretation (fiqh) which considers the Koran in its entirety, and contrasts with the superficial literalism of Islamic extremists. (Not that either interpretation is particularly good.) Despite what literalists and Sam Harris claim, there are multiple interpretations even within (so-called) literalism.

As Harris observes, Islam is not even a unified force, with many different denominations and movements.

"[...] no amount of casuistry can disguise the fact that the other (or "lesser") jihad-war with infidels and apostates-is a central feature of the faith"

Yes, it's a central feature of extremist Islam, by definition. However, most self-professed Muslims have an interpretation that is not extremist. Harris is verging on equivocation of the word Islam, since he means just one extremist interpretation of it.

He quotes several hadiths that support military conquest as part of jihad. He argues the few peaceful and tolerant verses are easy for extremists to ignore Surah 2:190 Bible-icon.png Surah 2:256 Bible-icon.png and are limited in scope. There are many instances of oppression of Jews and Christians in majority Muslim countries.

Harris claims that most minorities are supposedly tolerant but may be biding their time before attacking. Again, no evidence is cited. This argument is fear mongering without any basis.

He then discusses the literalist punishment for apostasy in Islam, which is death. He claims that death for apostasy is "a matter of mainstream acceptance". Support for this varies widely, from 4% in Kazakhstan to 86% in Egypt, so this is true in some interpretations of Islam within those regions. [20] Is it also one thing to pay lip service to the Koran and the other to actually kill apostates, which relatively rarely happens (but tragic when it does occur).

For more information, see the Wikipedia article:

Harris points out that few Muslims disavowed the fatwa against Salman Rushdie after publication of his novel The Satanic Verses. On the other hand, the 9/11 attacks were condemned by many Muslim leaders, and sympathy for the United States increased in the Middle East (until it was squandered by more US militarism).

Violence can also be justified using the Old Testament:

"As we have seen, Christianity and Judaism can made to sound the same, intolerant note-but it has been a few centuries since either has done so."

Harris seems to be letting these religions off the hook in his effort to make Islam seem particularly bad. However, intolerance is fostered by the Bible to this day. He should consider Christian/far-right terror which is often Biblically inspired [21], and is more of a threat in the last decade within the United States.[22]

Skeptics Annotated Quran.jpg
For more information, see the Skeptic's Annotated Quran article:

He seems to be making the fundamentalist interpretation of Islam is worse than the mainstream interpretation of Christianity, which is comparing apples with oranges. Harris provides five pages of quotes which relate to intolerance in the Koran.

"I cannot judge the quality of the Arabic; perhaps it is sublime. But the book's contents are not. On almost every page, the Koran instructs observant Muslims to despise non-believers. On almost every page, it prepares the ground for religious conflict. [...] Islam, more than any other religion human beings have devised, has all the makings of a throughgoing cult of death.[...] In light of what devout Muslims believe-about Jihad, about martyrdom, about paradise, and about infidels-suicide bombing hardly appears to be an aberration of their faith."

He then cites Pew Research's polls into support for suicide bombing of civilian targets among Muslims (discussed above). Harris claims that even relatively low support in places like Turkey are still problematic. Descriptions of Heaven that motivate suicide bombers he regards as sordid, implausible and lacking in in imagination.

Jihad and the Power of the Atom[edit]

"For devout Muslims, religious identity seems to trump all others. Despite the occasional influence of Pan-Arabism, the concept of an ethnic or natural influence has never taken root in the Muslim world."

The United States CIA and military forces expend a great deal of effort to ensure this remains the case. Nationalistic movements interfere with their access to oil resources.

"Saddam may have tortured and killed more Muslims than any person in living memory, but the Americans are the "enemies of God"."
For more information, see the Wikipedia article:
For more information, see the Wikipedia article:

Selective memory is a wonderful thing: including hundreds of thousands killed in the U.S. invasion and countless people tortured. On the other hand, Abu Ghraib was not widely known until the year of this book's publication.

"In our dialogue with the Muslim world, we are confronted by people who hold beliefs for which there is no rational justification and which therefore cannot even be discussed, and et these are the very beliefs that underlie many of the demands they are likely to make upon us."

Tragically, the pot calls the kettle black. It would be useful if Harris was more specific about what demands he is referring to. Muslim governments generally don't demand Western countries convert.

"It should be of particular concern to use that the beliefs of Muslims pose a special problem for nuclear deterrence. There is little possibility of our having a cold war with an Islamist regime armed with long-range nuclear weapons. A cold war requires that the parties be mutually deterred by the threat of death. Notions of martyrdom and jihad run roughshod over the logic that allowed the United States and the Soviet Union to pass half a century perched, more or less stably, on the brink of Armageddon. 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 willbe 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 strike of our own. Needless to say, this would be an unthinkable crime [...] The Muslim world in particular must anticipate this possibility and find some way to prevent it."
For more information, see the Wikipedia article:

This section has received much criticism from the likes of Chris Hedges[23] probably because Hedges would not consider the use of nuclear weapons to be ever justified. The idea of mutually assured destruction is based on the assumptions that humans are generally rational and work in their best interests - both of which are questionable. Harris does imply that the entire scenario should be avoided but does not say how this might be achieved.

The Clash[edit]

Harris then defends the clash of civilizations hypothesis, saying it is obvious that any "devout Muslim" who follows the Koran will confirm it.

"Of course, Islam is not uniquely susceptible to under-going such horrible transformations, though it is, at this moment in history, uniquely ascendant. Western leaders who insist that our conflict is not with Islam are mistaken; but, as I argue throughout this book, we have a problem with Christianity and Judaism as well. [...] Our enemy is nothing other than faith itself."

He changes course and says Islam is not uniquely bad, it is just a form of faith that is currently in the ascendant. Harris argues Islam needs its reformation.

"What is obvious, however, is that the West must either win the argument or win the war."

The Riddle of Muslim "Humiliation"[edit]

The role of humiliation of Muslims people as a cause for extremism[24] is discussed.

For more information, see the Wikipedia article:

Harris claims that Muslim populations are anti-liberalism and anti-democracy. This ignores anti-democracy actions of the United States, such as the overthrow of the elected government of Iran in 1953 and US support for local dictators. There are democratic movements in these countries but they have been sidelined in favor of United States supported dictators and Islamists.

He then goes on to argue that poverty itself is not a cause of extremism. This is largely true because there are many poor countries around the world and they are not prone to extremism. However, the poverty these countries is largely due to the political failures and injustice, often use to Western interference. Poverty is therefore a symptom, together with extremism, rather than a cause of extremism.

The Danger of Wishful Thinking[edit]

For more information, see the Wikipedia article:

Harris writes enthusiastically about Paul Berman's book Terror and Liberalism, which says there are commonalities with Islamic extremism and other 20th century fascist movements and that liberal movements are often in denial of these political forces. They argue against the idea that the Palestinian terror is a response to Israeli occupation and mistreatment. He quotes Dershowitz writing about Israel:

"no other nation in history faced with comparable challenges has ever adhered to a higher standard of human rights, been more sensitive to the safety of innocent civilians, tried harder to operate under the rule of law, or been willing to take more risks for peace.[25]"
For more information, see the Wikipedia article:

This is not factually correct. The Israeli occupation involves mass detentions without charge, unlawful killings, confiscation of land, a blockade of imports, assassination of elected leaders, extra-judicial executions, use of excessive force and many other atrocities. [26] The Israeli settlements in occupied territory are considered illegal by the UN (in resolution 194). Attempted ethnic cleansing would be a better description of the occupation.[27]

"And I take it to be more or less self-evidence that whenever large numbers of people begin turning themselves into bombs [...] the rationale behind their actions ceases to be merely political."

Ignoring that secular groups that have used suicide tactics (again), this does not mean that the political aspect of their motivation can be ignored or is secondary.

"Given what many Muslims believe, is genuine peace in the world possible?"

This statement presumably uses Harris's terminology in which Muslim means "fundamentalist Muslim" or "literalist Muslim".

"Without faith, most Muslim grievances against the West would be impossible even to formulate, much less avenge."

These grievances are comprehensible in secular or other religious frameworks. For instance, "occupation of my home land" is fairly straightforward to understand.

Leftist Unreason and the Strange Case of Noam Chomsky[edit]

Harris goes on to criticize Jean Baudrillard and Noam Chomsky.

"Before pointing out just how wayward Chomsky's thinking is on this subject, I would like to concede many of his points, since they have the virtue of both being generally important and irrelevant to the matter at hand. There is no doubt that the United States has much to atone for [...] Nothing I have written in this book should be construed as a denial of these facts [... however Chomsky's view] is a masterpiece of moral blindness"
For more information, see the Wikipedia article:

Harris starts with the example of the 1998 cruise missile strike on a factory in Sudan. The United States claimed that the factory was used to produce nerve gas, although not all their analysts agreed, such as Mary McCarthy at the CIA[28]. No solid evidence was produced that showed it was producing nerve gas and the factory owners denied the accusations. Medicine could no longer be produced at the plant, resulting in tens of thousands of deaths. It was eventually revealed that the primary evidence was a single soil sample. [28]

"But let us now ask some very basic questions that Chomsky seems to have neglected to ask himself: What did the U.S. government think it was doing when it sent cruise missiles into Sudan? Destroying a chemical weapons site used by Al Qaeda. Did the Clinton administration intend to bring about the deaths of thousands of Sudanese children? No. [...] Asking these questions about Osama bin Laden and the nineteen hijackers puts us in a different moral universe entirely.[...] Where ethics are concerned, intentions are everything."

Harris relies heavily on the role of intention within ethics. Unfortunately, this allows a (possibly incompetent) person acting on unreliable information to justify almost anything, for instance "I wanted to save by daughter from growing up an evil world, so I killed her" [29]. The decision to bomb the factory was also reckless, given that such weak evidence was used. It is also a branch of ethics that is hardly used by anyone, probably because we could select an any agreeable goal, then select any method to achieve it (being a realistic or prudent approach is not necessary), and that method is justified because "they had good intent". Chomsky points out that fascist leaders in World War 2 had good intentions, at least as far as they were concerned. [30] (Intent is also part of the Catholic doctrine of the double effect.) One critic of Harris wrote, with some sarcasm:

"I’m pretty sure the tens of thousands of Sudanese who died as a result of U.S. actions would be comforted by knowing that our intentions were pure. [31]"

Ironically, Harris's logic also justifies Islamic extremists, for they intend to make the world a better place (from their perspective). Being willing to consider good intent for the U.S. government but not Al Qaeda (from their perspective) is a form of special pleading.

Harris is also naive in assuming the good intent of the US government when it comes to foreign affairs. While in a narrow sense, some actions can have the "intent" to stop terrorism, the overall intent is to support their imperial interests around the world. Using intent to justify actions allows a person to re-frame actions to support their preconceptions,

He qualifies his view on ethics in footnote 47:

"Are intentions really the bottom line? What are we to say, for instance, about those Christian missionaries in the New World who baptized Indian infants only to promptly kill them, thereby sending them to heaven? Their intentions were (apparently) good. Were their actions ethical? Yes, within the confines of a deplorably limited worldview. The medieval apothecary who gave his patients quicksilver really was trying to help. He was just mistaken about the role this element played in the human body. Intentions matter, but they are not all that matters."

There are plenty of examples in which factually correct but unwise actions can be justified using Harris's intentional principle. "I want to make it easier to park on my road ... by smashing up strangers cars with a sledge hammer ... or just ramming them out of the way." "I tried to remove the cancer in his brain... but I'm not a surgeon and I used a chainsaw." Any reckless action based on facts could be justified in a similar manner. Many people would consider US foreign policy to be a "deplorably limited worldview". [31]

For these reasons, we can dismiss considering intentions as the sole or primary factor in ethics as flawed. An alternative to judge actions is by their likely outcome i.e. consequentialism, as advocated by Chomsky. "The harm an action causes has to matter more to us than the intentions of the one causing the harm, regardless of the worldview within which they are operating."[31] Harris attacks consequentialism saying:

"We can forget about the bombing of the Al-Shifa plant, because many of the things we did not do in Sudan had even greater consequences. What about all the money and food we simply never thought to give the Sudanese prior to 1998? How many children did we kill (that is, not save) just by living in blissful ignorance of the conditions in Sudan?"

Indeed. Harris seems to be trying to make an reductio ad absurdum but without first establishing the conclusion as absurd (and its absurdity is not self evident). His alleged implications also ignore the opportunity cost in allocating our resources to Sudan; perhaps they could do more good elsewhere. Many ethical systems consider a lack of action a form of action itself. Harris argues for ethics to be based upon maximizing happiness and minimizing suffering in the chapter A Science of Good and Evil, which implicitly accepts consequentialism.

"[We need] to distinguish the morality of men like Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein from that of George Bush and Tony Blair."

According to consequentialism, they are not so very different.

Perfect Weapons and the Ethics of "Collateral Damager"[edit]

Harris further elaborates on his flawed principle of intention, asking us to imagine what various people would do with a perfect weapon. This seems hardly relevant given no such weapon exists and intention is a flawed way to judge actions.

"It is time for us to admit that not all culture are at the same stage of moral development.[...]Many things contribute to such an endowment. Political and economic stability, literacy, a modicum of social equality [...]"
For more information, see the Wikipedia article:

This assumes moral realism and the fact that the West really is more morally advanced. Almost all cultures believe they are more morally advanced than their neighbors. Harris is showing a lack of self-awareness in this regard. Of the My Lai massacre, he says:

"This is about as bad as human beings are capable of behaving. But what distinguishes us from many of our enemies is that this indiscriminate violence appalls us."

Dostoevsky argues these facts support the opposite conclusion:

"In any case civilisation has made mankind if not more bloodthirsty, at least more vilely, more loathsomely bloodthirsty. In old days he saw justice in bloodshed and with his conscience at peace exterminated those he thought proper. Now we do think bloodshed abominable and yet we engage in this abomination, and with more energy than ever. Which is worse? Decide that for yourselves.[32]"

Harris claims his argument is not racist because it has no biological basis. He makes a strange comparison between the risk of a child's death from a bomb's "collateral damage" and safety of domestic products like automobiles which also have risk.

"We are now living in a world that can no longer tolerate well-armed, malevolent regimes."

A lack of self-awareness?

A Waste of Precious Resources[edit]

He quotes Zakaria:

"The truth is little is to be gained by searching the Quran for clues to Islam's true nature.... The trouble with thundering declarations about "Islam's nature" is that Islam, like any religion, is not what books make it but what people make it. Forget the rantings of fundamentalists, who are a minority. Most Muslims' daily lives do not confirm the idea of a faith that is intrinsically anti-Western or anti-modern.[33]"

Harris counters this by saying that the good aspects of religion can be found elsewhere and the rest of religion is a waste of resources. This seems to be cherry picking aspects of a belief to evaluate its overall impact.

What Can We Do?[edit]

He compares interacting with (fundamentalist?) Islam as like trying to negotiate with 14th century Christians, who still persecuted heretics.

"Given that even failed states now possess potentially disruptive technology, we can no longer afford to live side by side with malign dictatorships or with the armies of ignorance massing across the oceans."

Freedom of expression without reprisal is named as the first principle of civil society. (Although Harris earlier said people who hold certain beliefs may need to be killed.)

"It appears that one of the most urgent tasks we now face in the developed world is to find some way of facilitating the emergence of civil societies everywhere else."

Harris suggest benign dictatorship as a stepping stone to democracy. He suggests world government as a solution.

"It does not seem to be much of an exaggeration to say that the fate of civilization lies largely in the hands of "moderate" Muslims. [...] Otherwise, we will be obliged to protect our interests in the world with force-continually."

West of Eden[edit]

Religion in the West is relatively weak, compared to the Islamic world. However, it does have political influence, particularly in the United States.

  • Zionism is largely supported by Christian fundamentalists who believe it is part of end times prophecy.
  • He describes the erection of Ten Commandment monuments outside U.S. courthouses, contrary to their First Amendment. Harris notes that Christians do not follow the punishments prescribed in the Old Testament.
  • Faith-based initiatives
  • Generals claim that terrorism is caused by Satan
  • Politicians blame mass shootings on evolutionary theory
  • Late supreme court justice Antonin Scalia claiming that government "derives its moral authority from God" and executes God's wrath on evil doers
  • Criminalization of victimless crimes, recreational drugs, prostitution, sodomy, largely motivated on the concept of sin. Ironically, this laws cause a great deal of suffering and harm to society. The failed experiment in alcohol prohibition was primarily a religious enterprise.
"Our present us of government funds suggests an uncanny skewing-we might say derangement-of our national priorities."
  • Religiously motivating blocking of stem cell research, which due to their dogmatic definition of the beginning of life, considers this to be a form of abortion.
  • Cutting funding to family planning groups that provide contraception, including those that operate in countries with a high incidence of AIDS. Reliance on ineffective abstinence-only sex education.
  • Criticism of religion is often portrayed as intolerance. Quoting Nicholas Kristof:
"But the liberal critiques sometimes seem not just filled with outrage at evangelical-backed policies, which is fair, but also to have a sneering tone about conservative Christianity itself. Such a mockery of religious faith is inexcusable.[34]"

Harris condemns these policies on the suffering and death they cause, which is consequentialism, rather than based on their intention which he says are "deemed to be good". (However, he did argue that non-fact based world views are an exception to intention based judgments.)

A Science of Good and Evil[edit]

Harris starts by asking if we have the "right" to feel moral outrage, such as for gross animal cruelty in another culture or time i.e. is moral realism true.

"Many people appear to believe that ethical truths are culturally contingent in a way that scientific truths are not. Indeed, this loss of purchase upon ethical truth seems to be one of the principal short-comings of secularism."

It is not just that ethics might be specific to a culture (moral relativism), many believe that ethics is not a "fact" or "knowledge" at all (moral anti-realism) or not knowable by humans (moral non-cognitivism).

"A rational approach to ethics becomes possible once we realize that questions of right and wrong are really questions about the happiness and suffering of sentient creatures."

That is just an opinion and cannot be easily demonstrated due to the Münchhausen trilemma. It is also a form of utilitarianism and consequentialism, which Harris previously attacked. Friedrich Nietzsche, in particular, rejects this standard of ethics since he considers some suffering to be necessary for personal growth. "Out of life's school of war: What does not destroy me, makes me stronger.", "Man does not strive for pleasure; only the Englishman does." [35] Also, Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground:

"Perhaps suffering is just as great a benefit to him as well-being? Man is sometimes extraordinarily, passionately, in love with suffering, and that is a fact. There is no need to appeal to universal history to prove that; only ask yourself, if you are a man and have lived at all. As far as my personal opinion is concerned, to care only for well-being seems to me positively ill-bred.[32]"

He also basically ignores the is-ought problem:

"[Harris] defines (I would say redefines) the concept of “ought” such that it can be readily identified as a purely natural concept. The truly crucial contribution made by Harris in The End of Faith is his identification of “ought” with a particular form of “is”. Harris avoids the problems associated with a transcendent moral obligation by grounding our feelings of moral obligation in the objective reality of human flourishing.[...] The tragic failure of Harris’ worldview is this inability to reckon with the unavoidable “ought”. By redefining morality in objective terms, Harris can certainly bring “good” and “evil” into the realm of the observable. But he still cannot tell us why we “ought” to seek the good and abhor the evil.[7]"

He argues that victimless crimes do not exist. Ethics, according to Harris, is a matter of knowledge, and we may potentially progress our knowledge. He dismisses the idea that morality depends on religion. The existence of natural evil rule out a benign designer God, who also appears to experience destructive emotions, and a "lust to dominate". He criticizes theodicies for the problem of evil as "heaping bad philosophy onto bad ethics".

  • We only consider conscious agents (or potentially conscious agents) to be of ethical concern.
  • Descartes and many scientists believed that animals were automata and could not experience pain.
  • He predicts an eventual scientific understanding of ethics and happiness at the level of the brain
  • He claims this would lead to insights into ethics and how to deal with transgressors
  • Religion can hinder this investigation into ethical issues.
  • A person being of the same religion is often used as a marker that the person shares the same values
  • Discussing the case of animal rights on the basis of the range of their experiences, but this is largely based on intuition
  • Discussing if his criteria about the "range of possible experiences" might give moral weight to some humans over others
  • Dismisses moral relativism as nonsensical ("and dangerously so")
  • We must agree on certain moral values, therefore moral relativism and moral pragmatism is wrong
"[...] moral relativists generally believe the all cultural practices should be respected on their own terms, that the practitioners of the various barbarisms that persisted around the globe cannot be judged by the standards of the West, no can the people of the past be judged by the standards of the present. And yet, implicit in this approach to morality lurks a claim that is not relative but absolute. [...] Moral relativism, when used as a rationale for tolerance of diversity, is self-contradictory."
"For the pragmatist, the utility of a belief trumps all other concerns, even the concern for coherence.[...] Pragmatism, when civilizations come clashing, does not appear likely to be very pragmatic.[...] Pragmatism amounts to a realistic denial of the possibility of realism."
"Respect for diversity in our ethical values is, at best, an intellectual holding pattern until more of the facts are in."
  • Intuition is necessary for reason and understanding, not contrary to it. Brute facts are necessary.
"The point, I trust, is obvious: we cannot step out of the darkness without taking a first step. And reason, without knowing how understands this axiom if it would understand anything at all.[...] The fact that we must rely on certain intuitions to answer ethical questions does not in the least suggest that there is anything insubstantial, ambiguous, or cultural contingent about ethical truth."
  • Warns against the naturalistic fallacy in ethics
  • Draws links between ethical behavior and positive human emotion
  • Discusses honor killings, saying those cultures love their women less than others:
"Can we say that Middle Eastern men who are murderously obsessed with female sexual purity actually love their wives, daughters, and sisters less than American or European men do? Of course we can."
  • While being moral is not a guarantee of happiness, Harris argues that is a generally correlation. And making someone more moral and loving will make them more happy. This motivates morality and compassion for selfish reasons.
"This is not a proposition to be merely believed. It is, rather, a hypothesis to be tested in the laboratory of one's life."

Various critics questioned this stance:

"It is perfectly possible to choose truth at the expense of happiness or happiness at the expense of truth. But is there any reason to assume that we can have both? The fact that Harris passes over this tremendous dilemma with hardly a comment is a major difficulty.[7]"

"I want to understand what idiosyncrasy begot that Socratic idea that reason and virtue equal happiness — that most bizarre of all equations which is [...]"

Friedrich Nietzsche
  • The use of torture by government authorities has recently been publicly considered in the US, particularly in a hypothetical ticking time bomb scenario.
"Clearly, the consequences of one man's uncooperativeness can be made so grave, and his malevolence and culpability so transparent, as to stir even the most self-hating moral relativist from his dogmatic slumbers."
  • The risk of torturing an innocent person is a risk. There are concerns about tortures reliability.
  • Arguably, the acceptance of civilian casualties in war seems to be morally equivalent to torture of potentially innocent people. Harris says torture is "necessary" but at the same time ethically unacceptable (which is a contradiction, if the act of torturing someone is an ethical choice).
"So we can now ask, if we are willing to act in a way that guarantees the misery and death of some considerable number of innocent children, why spare the rod with suspected terrorists? [...] Admittedly, this would be a ghastly result to have reached by logical arguments, and we will want to find some way of escaping it.[...] It is possible that we are simply unequipped to rectify this disparity-to be, in Glover's terms, most shocked by what is most harmful.[...] if we are willing to drop bombs, or even risk that pistol rounds might go astray, we should be willing to torture a certain class of criminal suspects and military prisoners; if we are unwilling to torture, we should be unwilling to wage modern war.[...] Enter Khalid Sheikh Mohammad: our most valuable capture in our war on terror. [...] his membership in Al Qaeda more or less rules out his "innocence" in any important sense, and his rank in the organization suggests that his knowledge of planed atrocities must be extensive. The bomb is ticking.[...] Because I believe the account offered above is basically sound, I believe that I have successfully argued for the use of torture in any circumstance in which we would be willing to cause collateral damage. Paradoxically, this equivalence has not made the practice of torture seem any more acceptable to me; nor has it, I trust, for most readers.[...] Given what many of us believe about the exigencies of our war on terrorism, the practice of torture, in certain circumstances, would seem to be not only permissible but necessary. Still, it does not seem to be any more acceptable, in ethical terms, than it did before."
  • Pacifism is not workable in a violent world
"[...] pacifism is ultimately nothing more than a willingness to die, and to let others diem at the pleasure of the world's thugs."
  • Violence is often necessary, such as to oppose the Nazis.
  • Islamists, including the Taliban, want to impose an undesirable society on the world. This is worth resisting.
"We cannot let our qualms over collateral damage paralyze us because our enemies know no such qualms."

This is two wrongs make a right.

Experiments on Consciousness[edit]

"At the core of every religion lies the undeniable claim about the human condition: it is possible to have one's experience of the world radically transformed. [...] most of us know, however dimly, that extraordinary experiences are possible. The problem with religion is that it blends this truth so throughly with the venom of unreason."
  • What is sufficient and necessarily for human happiness
  • Spirituality, without the dogmatic baggage is a path to happiness
"Our spiritual traditions suggest that we have considerable room here to change our relationships to the contents of consciousness, and thereby to transform our relationship to the contents of consciousness, and thereby to transform our experience of the world."
  • Most people accept Cartesian dualism, although it has been undermined by scientific progress
  • As far as science is concerned, the mind ends with death but Harris argues that "we simply do not know what happens after death"
  • He doubts consciousness will be entirely explained by science and some facts are only discoverable subjectively
"The idea that brains produce consciousness is little more than an article of faith among scientists at present, and there are many reasons to believe that the methods of science will be insufficient to either prove or disprove it.[...] Is a starfish conscious? No science that conflates consciousness with reportability will deliver an answer to this question.[...] Consciousness may be a far more rudimentary phenomenon than are living creatures and their brains. And there appears to be no obvious way of ruling out such a thesis experimentally.[...] The fact that the universe is illuminated where you stand, the fact that your thoughts and moods and sensations have a qualitative character, is an absolute mystery [...] some facts will e discovered only in consciousness, in first-person terms, or not discovered at all."
  • Musings about the "self": he emphasizes our inter-dependence of our body with our surrounding environment, our ancestors and our biological/mental component parts.
  • Discusses "loss of self"
  • He criticizes Western philosophy for being very backward in spirituality, partly due to the influence of the Abrahamic religions.
"In spiritual terms, we appear to have been standing on the shoulders of dwarfs."
  • Eastern spirituality is much more advanced and far exceeds Western religions in this regard
  • He calls an passage from Padmasambhava an "empirical document"
  • Discusses meditation and connects it with ethics and happiness
"As in any other field, spiritual intuitions are amenable to inter-subjective consensus, and refutation. [...] genuine mysticism can be "objective"-in the only normative sense of this world that is worth retaining-in that it need not be contaminated by dogma.[...]Mysticism is a rational enterprise. Religion is not."
  • Briefly mentions transhumanism.
  • Religion pretends to be knowledge but is rather an obstacle to knowledge


"A genuinely frightening book about terrorism, and the central role played by religion in justifying and rewarding it [...] Harris goes to the root of the problem: religion itself."

Richard Dawkins[36]

"His facile attack on a form of religious belief we all hate, his childish simplicity and ignorance of world affairs, as well as his demonization of Muslims, made the book tedious, at its best, and often idiotic and racist."

Chris Hedges[3]
"It’s a shame that Sam Harris doesn’t seem open to really considering the evidence.[37]"

Basing belief on evidence is a primary theme of the book. The problem is the evidence for religious claims is weak.


  1. 1.0 1.1 [1]
  2. [2]
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 Chris Hedges, I Don't Believe in Atheists, 2008
  4. 4.0 4.1 Jeff Sparrow, the end of faith, the beginning of bigotry, 14.Feb.09
  5. [3]
  6. [4]
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 [5]
  8. P. Berman, Terror and Liberalism, 2003
  9. [6]
  10. [7]
  11. [8]
  12. [9]
  13. [10]
  14. [11]
  15. [12]
  16. [13]
  17. [14]
  18. [15]
  19. [16]
  20. [17]
  21. [18]
  22. [19]
  23. [20]
  24. [21]
  25. [22]
  26. [23]
  27. [24]
  28. 28.0 28.1 [25]
  29. [26]
  30. [27]
  31. 31.0 31.1 31.2 [28]
  32. 32.0 32.1 [29]
  33. Fareed Zakaria, The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad, 2003
  34. [30]
  35. [31]
  36. [32]
  37. [33]

External links[edit]