The End of Faith Pt 2 – An Exercise in Missing the Point (Book Review)

I liked this book.  Sam Harris is an intelligent and articulate thinker and writer.  He lays out a very compelling argument for people to enter into reasoned debate about tribalism in a globalized world.   We need more thinkers, philosophers, theologians, atheists and deists on all sides to enter into this discussion if we are to understand one another and learn how to live together on this rock we call planet earth.

But Harris’ core thesis; that Faith in an unseen God is unreasonable and must be expunged from our consciousness if we are ever to ahieve lasting world peace, is overly simplistic and completely misses the mark.  Yes religious tribalism is bad but that has little or nothing to do with faith. Harris knows this and tries to have it both ways when discussing spiritualism and mysticism but completely glosses over or ignores it when discussing the major world religions.

I’ve seen this argument time and time again from both atheists and deists alike.  It’s a red herring.

No theologian or philosopher worth his salt will waste any breath attempting to prove or disprove the existence of God.  The “evidence” we have either way is circumstantial at best and you either believe that it points to God or you don’t.  There is no smoking gun and there is no DNA on the body.  Just like the OJ trial 15 years ago and the recent Casey Anderson verdict it’s un-provable so move on.

Therefore; what is at issue here is not faith but religion itself.    After exhausting the limited argument for or against the existence of God, which usually takes nothing more than a single paragraph, what most authors on both sides of the debate (Harris included) are left with is a discussion about the value of various religious dogmatic positions.

Let me be perfectly clear here.  While religion requires faith, faith does not require religion.

What Harris does is give an explanation for the end of his faith but does not provide any evidence that would lead others, who didn’t already share his view to end their own.  What we’re left with is a 200 page argument about various religious practices that are incompatible with a tolerant, pluralistic society but any further attempt to link religion with faith falls flat.

By the end of the book Harris appears to abandon all pretence when discussing mysticism.  Somehow in Harris’ view a mystic who believes that the world can simply be experienced without the need for any scientific analysis, or has he puts it, concepts, is more rational than one who attempts to connect concepts with unexplained experiences through, for lack of a better term, faith.

The roiling mystery of the world can be analyzed with concepts (this is science), or it can be experienced free of concepts (this is mysticism).  Religion is nothing more than bad concepts held in place of good ones for all time.  It is the denial – at once full of hope and full of fear – of the vastitude of human ignorance. – Sam Harris; The End of Faith

To be fair, Harris doesn’t actually use the term faith here, he blames it all on religion but the implication is clear.  Somehow the “faith” of a mystic is more rational than the faith found in religion, and while this may be true in many cases and may be a reason to abandon your religion, it is not a reason to abandon faith.

I am sure at this point many of my readers are going to want me to continue this line of thought and become an apologist for one faith
tradition or another.  I’m not going to do that.  If you have read any of my previous posts on religion in general and Christianity in particular you know where I stand on this.  While ultimately I do wish all atheists would become Christians the first step in that very long journey is to first recognize the rationality of Deism we can discuss the particulars of faith later.


  1. The thing that continually amazes me about people like Sam Harris is that they manage to gain their fifteen minutes of fame by rehashing concepts and arguments that have been thoroughly hashed and mulled over by countless generations before them. I got my fill of them in bull-sessions someplace around my sophomore year (1963-64) as an anthropology major with a minor in religion. I am certain that they existed for several generations prior to mine.

    I have no trouble imagining the same general discussion between Og and his buddy Ug around the fire in the cave (when the shaman wasn’t around, of course). They would likely have been disposed in the opposite direction from Harris, since supernatural explanations for many common phenomena were the only ones available at the time, and humans are hard-wired to look for explanations. We need them for psychological and emotional homeostasis — the feeling that things are generally OK and under control — and that is particularly true amongst people and societies that have no real control over what happens in their day-to-day lives through lack of understanding the tools needed to manipulate their environment. That is as true today as it was back in Og’s time.

    Oddballs like Diagoras of Melos (5th century BCE) notwithstanding, I seriously doubt that there were very many Atheists at large prior to the 18th Century, when the word itself was coined. People need not only a certain amount of leisure to consider the impermanence of their beliefs, but also the possibility of alternate answers. While those existed in the ancient Mediterranean societies, they were notably thin on the ground in Christian lands from around the 3rd Century CE until the Renaissance, and many of them have hard going in some Western cultures even as I write. Consider evolution, for example. (We’ll leave out quantum theory, which should be at least as disturbing, because practically no one understands it — although many think they do.)

    But, to get back to sophomore year, that was about the point where I became an ignostic. It became obvious to me that (as you alluded in one of the posts above) before any rational discussion of the existence of “god” could be held, it would first be necessary for all concerned to arrive at some agreement on a definition of “god.” Since, of course, God is purportedly a transcendent entity, incapable of being understood by mortals, such an agreement has yet escaped us.

    I thus refuse to become involved in the fray. I’m willing to take my chances. I try to live a good, useful life, be a good person, and avoid hurting other sentient beings. Whether or not there is a god, I figure I’ll get my reward — in this world, if not the next. And, as a bonus, I get to ignore a lot of pointless discussions.

    So far, so good.

  2. From F. Elsworth –

    At one point you said: “Yes religious tribalism is bad but that has little or nothing to do with faith.”

    In the case of this one sentence, I think I would have to respectfully disagree. At least when it comes to the Abrahamic religions (and to many non-Abrahamic), tribalism has everything to do with “faith” as seen by those religions. Perhaps you meant to make a distinction from what is usually meant by faith and your own, personal view of faith.

    But back to my point, there must be a reason that the bible refers to the tribes of Israel. And most if not all of the religion-based middle-east conflicts have tribalism at the core. Christianity likewise, is involved in setting apart a particular tribe to be a holy people, and there are, in that view, both winners and losers, good guys in our tribe, who will eventually slaughter the bad guys in all those other tribes, who know not God.

    While you undoubtedly have risen above these petty views, the majority of Christians have not. So, Jewish, Christian and Moslem tribalism is at the core of most world problems today. The forth leg in this diablic stool, of course, is Asia.

    Best wishes to you.

  3. I agree that reiligion has a lot to do with tribalism. However; I believe that it is possible to have a rational discussion about faith without the need for any religion. That is why I went on to say that while religion requires faith, faith does not require religion.

  4. Agreed. My goal is simply to set a good example for the people I care about and hope they make the right choice, and I think it’s essential for all Christians to do the same. I think it was in 1900 that athiests predicted the 20th century would see religion disappear in the U.S. and it never happened. I think the reason is because most poeple are sensible and understand that it’s God and Christianity that has given us this great thing called freedom than we now get to enjoy and take for granted. It’s Christianity that got people to thinking about living this life to it’s fullest in order to get to the next. To debate which religion is best, or to debate whether God exists with athiests, is a job for super humans with thick skin and lots of energy and time. With four kids my job isn’t to convince the world, it’s to do my part by showing my them the rewards of living a virtuous life.

    1. One other thing to consider. Remember how Paul spoke to Atheists?


      That’s becuase he didn’t.

      Acts 17 recounts how Paul preached to the philosophers of Athens. They scoffed at him so he left, only a few wanted to learn more and followed after him but Paul didn’t waist his time trying to convince those that had no interest in what he had to say.

    1. Thanks for reading and finding this old post.

      The phrase in question is actually just a keen observation I came up with all on my own. You may have made the same observation at one time and that’s cool but you can’t you can’t really claim ownership of a phrase like that. I’m sure somewhere back in the anuls of history someone first observed that the sky is blue but we don’t give him everytime we marvel at a clear sky on a sunny day…

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