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The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason

Sam Harris (2005)


Our situation is this: most of the people in this world believe that the Creator of the universe has written a book. We have the misfortune of having many such books on hand, each making an exclusive claim as to its infallibility. People tend to organize themselves into factions according to which of these incompatible claims they accept—rather than on the basis of language, skin color, location of birth, or any other criterion of tribalism. Each of these texts urges its readers to adopt a variety of beliefs and practices, some of which are benign, many of which are not. All are in perverse agreement on one point of fundamental importance, however: "respect" for other faiths, or for the views of unbelievers, is not an attitude that God endorses. (13)

Words like "God" and "Allah" must go the way of "Apollo" and "Baal," or they will unmake our world. (14)

What is the alternative to religion as we know it? As it turns out, this is the wrong question to ask. Chemistry was not an "alternative" to alchemy; it was a wholesale exchange of ignorance at its most rococo for genuine knowledge. (14)

Tell a devout Christian that his wife is cheating on him, or that frozen yogurt can make a man invisible, and he is likely to require as much evidence as anyone else, and to be persuaded only to the extent that you give it. Tell him that the book he keeps by his bed was written by an invisible deity who will punish him with fire for eternity if he fails to accept its every incredible claim about the universe, and he seems to require no evidence whatsoever. (19)

Imagine that we could revive a well-educated Christian of the fourteenth century. The man would prove to be a total ignoramus, except on matters of faith. His beliefs about geography, astronomy, and medicine would embarrass even a child, but he would know more or less everything there is to know about God. Though he would be considered a fool to think that the earth is the center of the cosmos, or that trepanning constitutes a wise medical intervention, his religious ideas would still be beyond reproach. There are two explanations for this: either we perfected our religious understanding of the world a millennium ago—while our knowledge on all other fronts was still hopelessly inchoate—or religion, being the mere maintenance of dogma, is one area of discourse that does not admit of progress. (21-2)

The point is that most of what we currently hold sacred is not sacred for any reason other than that it was thought sacred yesterday. Surely, if we could create the world anew, the practice of organizing our lives around untestable propositions found in ancient literature—to say nothing of killing and dying for them—would be impossible to justify. What stops us from finding it impossible now? (24)

There is, of course, much that is wise and consoling and beautiful in our religious books. But words of wisdom and consolation and beauty abound in the pages of Shakespeare, Virgil, and Homer as well, and no one ever murdered strangers by the thousands because of the inspiration he found there. The belief that certain books were written by God (who, for reasons difficult to fathom, made Shakespeare a far better writer than himself) leaves us powerless to address the most potent source of human conflict, past and present. (35)

Imagine a world in which generations of human beings come to believe that certain films were made by God or that specific software was coded by him. Imagine a future in which millions of our descendants murder each other over rival interpretations of Star Wars or Windows 98. Could anything—anything—be more ridiculous? And yet, this would be no more ridiculous than the world we are living in. (35-6)

It is time we admitted, from kings and presidents on down, that there is no evidence that any of our books was authored by the Creator of the universe. The Bible, it seems certain, was the work of sand-strewn men and women who thought the earth was flat and for whom a wheelbarrow would have been a breathtaking example of emerging technology. (45)

To see how much our culture currently partakes of the irrationality of our enemies, just substitute the name of your favorite Olympian for "God" wherever this word appears in public discourse. Imagine President Bush addressing the National Prayer Breakfast in these terms: "Behind all of life and all history there is a dedication and a purpose, set by the hand of a just and faithful Zeus." Imagine his speech to Congress (September 20, 2001) containing the sentence "Freedom and fear, justice and cruelty have always been at war, and we know that Apollo is not neutral between them." Clearly, the commonplaces of language conceal the vacuity and strangeness of many of our beliefs. Our president regularly speaks in phrases appropriate to the fourteenth century, and no one seems inclined to find out what words like "God" and "crusade" and "wonder-working power" mean to him. Not only do we still eat the offal of the ancient world; we are positively smug about it. Garry Wills has noted that the Bush White House "is currently honeycombed with prayer groups and Bible study cells, like a whited monastery." This should trouble us as much as it troubles the fanatics of the Muslim world. We should be humbled, perhaps to the point of spontaneous genuflection, by the knowledge that the ancient Greeks began to lay their Olympian myths to rest several hundred years before the birth of Christ, whereas we have the likes of Bill Moyers convening earnest gatherings of scholars for the high purpose of determining just how the book of Genesis can be reconciled with life in the modern world. As we stride boldly into the Middle Ages, it does not seem out of place to wonder whether the myths that now saturate our discourse will wind up killing many of us, as the myths of others already have. (46-7)

Why is it wrong to believe a proposition to be true just because it might feel good to believe it? One need only linger over the meaning of the word "because" (Middle English "by" + "cause") to see the problem here. "Because" suggests a causal connection between a proposition's being true and a person's believing that it is. This explains the value we generally place on evidence: because evidence is simply an account of the causal linkage between states of the world and our beliefs about them. (62)

As long as a person maintains that his beliefs represent an actual state of the world (visible or invisible; spiritual or mundane), he must believe that his beliefs are a consequence of the way the world is. This, by definition, leaves him vulnerable to new evidence. Indeed, if there were no conceivable change in the world that could get a person to question his religious beliefs, this would prove that his beliefs were not predicated upon his taking any state of the world into account. He could not claim, therefore, to be representing the world at all. (63)

But faith is an impostor. This can be readily seen in the way that all the extraordinary phenomena of the religious life—a statue of the Virgin weeps, a child casts his crutches to the ground—are seized upon by the faithful as confirmation of their faith. At these moments, religious believers appear like men and women in the desert of uncertainty given a cool drink of data. There is no way around the fact that we crave justification for our core beliefs and believe them only because we think such justification is, at the very least, in the offing. Is there a practicing Christian in the West who would be indifferent to the appearance of incontestable physical evidence that attested to the literal truth of the Gospels? (66)

This is the very same faith that will not stoop to reason when it has no good reasons to believe. If a little supportive evidence emerges, however, the faithful prove as attentive to data as the damned. This demonstrates that faith is nothing more than a willingness to await the evidence—be it the Day of Judgment or some other downpour of corroboration. It is the search for knowledge on the installment plan: believe now, live an untestable hypothesis until your dying day, and you will discover that you were right.
But in any other sphere of life, a belief is a check that everyone insists upon cashing this side of the grave: the engineer says the bridge will hold; the doctor says the infection is resistant to penicillin— these people have defensible reasons for their claims about the way the world is. The mullah, the priest, and the rabbi do not. Nothing could change about this world, or about the world of their experience, that would demonstrate the falsity of many of their core beliefs. This proves that these beliefs are not born of any examination of the world, or of the world of their experience. (They are, in Karl Popper's sense, "unfalsifiable.") It appears that even the Holocaust did not lead most Jews to doubt the existence of an omnipotent and benevolent God. If having half of your people systematically delivered to the furnace does not count as evidence against the notion that an all-powerful God is looking out for your interests, it seems reasonable to assume that nothing could. How does the mullah know that the Koran is the verbatim word of God? The only answer to be given in any language that does not make a mockery of the word "know" is—he doesn't.
A man's faith is just a subset of his beliefs about the world: beliefs about matters of ultimate concern that we, as a culture, have told him he need not justify in the present. It is time we recognized just how maladaptive this Balkanization of our discourse has become. All pretensions to theological knowledge should now be seen from the perspective of a man who was just beginning his day on the one hundredth floor of the World Trade Center on the morning of September 11, 2001, only to find his meandering thoughts— of family and friends, of errands run and unrun, of coffee in need of sweetener—inexplicably usurped by a choice of terrible starkness and simplicity: between being burned alive by jet fuel or leaping one thousand feet to the concrete below. In fact, we should take the perspective of thousands of such men, women, and children who were robbed of life, far sooner than they imagined possible, in absolute terror and confusion. The men who committed the atrocities of September 11 were certainly not "cowards," as they were repeatedly described in the Western media, nor were they lunatics in any ordinary sense. They were men of faith—perfect faith, as it turns out— and this, it must finally be acknowledged, is a terrible thing to be. (66-7)

We have names for people who have many beliefs for which there is no rational justification. When their beliefs are extremely common we call them "religious"; otherwise, they are likely to be called "mad," "psychotic," or "delusional." Most people of faith are perfectly sane, of course, even those who commit atrocities on account of their beliefs. But what is the difference between a man who believes that God will reward him with seventy-two virgins if he kills a score of Jewish teenagers, and one who believes that creatures from Alpha Centauri are beaming him messages of world peace through his hair dryer? There is a difference, to be sure, but it is not one that places religious faith in a flattering light.
It takes a certain kind of person to believe what no one else believes. To be ruled by ideas for which you have no evidence (and which therefore cannot be justified in conversation with other human beings) is generally a sign that something is seriously wrong with your mind. Clearly, there is sanity in numbers. And yet, it is merely an accident of history that it is considered normal in our society to believe that the Creator of the universe can hear your thoughts, while it is demonstrative of mental illness to believe that he is communicating with you by having the rain tap in Morse code on your bedroom window. And so, while religious people are not generally mad, their core beliefs absolutely are. This is not surprising, since most religions have merely canonized a few products of ancient ignorance and derangement and passed them down to us as though they were primordial truths. This leaves billions of us believing what no sane person could believe on his own. In fact, it is difficult to imagine a set of beliefs more suggestive of mental illness than those that lie at the heart of many of our religious traditions. (72)

Jesus Christ—who, as it turns out, was born of a virgin, cheated death, and rose bodily into the heavens—can now be eaten in the form of a cracker. A few Latin words spoken over your favorite Burgundy, and you can drink his blood as well. Is there any doubt that a lone subscriber to these beliefs would be considered mad? Rather, is there any doubt that he would be mad? The danger of religious faith is that it allows otherwise normal human beings to reap the fruits of madness and consider them holy. (73)

Before you can get to the end of this paragraph, another person will probably die because of what someone else believes about God. (77)

In 1234, the canonization of Saint Dominic was finally proclaimed in Toulouse, and Bishop Raymond du Fauga was washing his hands in preparation for dinner when he heard the rumor that a fever-ridden old woman in a nearby house was about to undergo the Cathar ritual. The bishop hurried to her bedside and managed to convince her that he was a friend, then interrogated her on her beliefs, then denounced her as a heretic. He called on her to recant. She refused. The bishop thereupon had her bed carried out into a field, and there she was burned. "And after the bishop and the friars and their companions had seen the business completed," Brother Guillaume wrote, "they returned to the refectory and, giving thanks to God and the Blessed Dominic, ate with rejoicing what had been prepared for them."
The question of how the church managed to transform Jesus' principal message of loving one's neighbor and turning the other cheek into a doctrine of murder and rapine seems to promise a harrowing mystery; but it is no mystery at all. Apart from the Bible's heterogeneity and outright self-contradiction, allowing it to justify diverse and irreconcilable aims, the culprit is clearly the doctrine of faith itself. 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. (84-5)

The basic lesson to be drawn from all this was summed up nicely by Will Durant: "Intolerance is the natural concomitant of strong faith; tolerance grows only when faith loses certainty; certainty is murderous." (86)

Although not a single leader of the Third Reich—not even Hitler himself—was ever excommunicated, Galileo was not absolved of heresy until 1992. (105)

Whenever you hear that people have begun killing noncombatants intentionally and indiscriminately, ask yourself what dogma stands at their backs. What do these freshly minted killers believe? You will find that it is always—always— preposterous. (106)

But what is it that gets a martyr out of bed early on his last day among the living? Did any of the nineteen hijackers make haste to Allah's garden simply to get his hands on his allotment of silk? It seems doubtful. The irony here is almost a miracle in its own right: the most sexually repressive people found in the world today— people who are stirred to a killing rage by reruns of Baywatch—are lured to martyrdom by a conception of paradise that resembles nothing so much as an al fresco bordello. (127)

The evil that has finally reached our shores is not merely the evil of terrorism. It is the evil of religious faith at the moment of its political ascendancy. Of course, Islam is not uniquely susceptible to undergoing 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. It is time we recognized that all reasonable men and women have a common enemy. It is an enemy so near to us, and so deceptive, that we keep its counsel even as it threatens to destroy the very possibility of human happiness. Our enemy is nothing other than faith itself. (130-1)

Muslim terrorists have not tended to come from the ranks of the uneducated poor; many have been middle class, educated, and without any obvious dysfunction in their personal lives. As Zakaria points out, compared with the nineteen hijackers, John Walker Lindh (the young man from California who joined the Taliban) was "distinctly undereducated." Ahmed Omar Sheikh, who organized the kidnapping and murder of the Wall Street journal reporter Daniel Pearl studied at the London School of Economics. Hezbollah militants who die in violent operations are actually less likely to come from poor homes than their nonmilitant contemporaries and more likely to have a secondary school education. The leaders of Hamas are all college graduates, and some have master's degrees. (133)

As we see in the person of Osama bin Laden, a murderous religious fervor is compatible with wealth and education. Indeed, the technical proficiency of many Muslim terrorists demonstrates that it is compatible with a scientific education. That is why there is no cognitive or cultural substitute for desacralizing faith itself. As long as it is acceptable for a person to believe that he knows how God wants everyone on earth to live, we will continue to murder one another on account of our myths. (133-4)

Think of all the good things human beings will not do in this world tomorrow because they believe that their most pressing task is to build another church or mosque, or to enforce some ancient dietary practice, or to print volumes upon volumes of exegesis on the disordered thinking of ignorant men. How many hours of human labor will be devoured, today, by an imaginary God? Think of it: if a computer virus shuts down a nation's phone system for five minutes, the loss in human productivity is measured in billions of dollars. Religious faith has crashed our lines daily, for millennia. I'm not suggesting that the value of every human action should be measured in terms of productivity. Indeed, much of what we do would wither under such an analysis. But we should still recognize what a fathomless sink for human resources (both financial and attentional) organized religion is. Witness the rebuilding of Iraq: What was the first thing hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Shiites thought to do upon their liberation? Flagellate themselves. Blood poured from their scalps and backs as they walked miles of cratered streets and filth-strewn alleys to converge on the holy city Karbala, home to the tomb of Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet. Ask yourself whether this was really the best use of their time. Their society was in tatters. Fresh water and electricity were scarce. Their schools and hospitals were being looted. And an occupying army was trying to find reasonable people with whom to collaborate to form a civil society. Self-mortification and chanting should have been rather low on their list of priorities. (149)

Many members of the U.S. government currently view their professional responsibilities in religious terms. Consider the case of Roy Moore, chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court. Finding himself confronted by the sixth-highest murder rate in the nation, Justice Moore thought it expedient to install a two-and-a-half-ton monument of the Ten Commandments in the rotunda of the state courthouse in Montgomery.
Attorney General John Ashcroft, whose sole business is to enforce the nation's laws, maintained a pious silence all the while. This was not surprising, given that when he does speak, he is in the habit of saying things like "We are a nation called to defend freedom— freedom that is not the grant of any government or document, but is our endowment from God." According to a Gallup poll, Ashcroft and the Congress were on firm ground as far as the American people were concerned, because 78 percent of those polled objected to the removal of the monument. One wonders whether Moore, Ashcroft, the U.S. Congress, and three-quarters of the American people would like to see the punishments for breaking these hallowed commandments also specified in marble and placed in our nation's courts. What, after all, is the punishment for taking the Lord's name in vain? It happens to be death (Leviticus 24:16). What is the punishment for working on the Sabbath? Also death (Exodus 31:15). What is the punishment for cursing one's father or mother? Death again (Exodus 21:17). What is the punishment for adultery? You're catching on (Leviticus 20:10). While the commandments themselves are difficult to remember (especially since chapters 20 and 34 of Exodus provide us with incompatible lists), the penalty for breaking them is simplicity itself. (154-5)

Lieutenant General William G. Boykin was recently appointed deputy undersecretary of defense for intelligence at the Pentagon. A highly decorated Special Forces officer, he now sets policy with respect to the search for Osama bin Laden, Mullah Omar, and the rest of America's enemies in hiding. He is also, as it turns out, an ardent opponent of Satan. Analyzing a photograph of Mogadishu after the fateful routing of his forces there in 1993, Boykin remarked that certain shadows in the image revealed "the principalities of darkness . . . a demonic presence in that city that God revealed to me as the enemy." On the subject of the war on terror, he has asserted that our "enemy is a guy named Satan." While these remarks sparked some controversy in the media, most Americans probably took them in stride. After all, 65 percent of us are quite certain that Satan exists. (155-6)

It is time we realized that crimes without victims are like debts without creditors. They do not even exist. (171)

Credit goes to Christopher Hitchens for distilling, in a single phrase, a principle of discourse that could well arrest our slide toward the abyss: "what can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence." Let us pray that billions of us soon agree with him. (176)

The spiritual differences between the East and the West are every bit as shocking as the material differences between the North and the South. Jared Diamond's fascinating thesis, to sum it up in a line, is that advanced civilization did not arise in sub-Saharan Africa, because one can't saddle a rhinoceros and ride it into battle.10 If there is an equally arresting image that accounts for why nondualistic, empirical mysticism seems to have arisen only in Asia, I have yet to find it. But I suspect that the culprit has been the Christian, Jewish, and Muslim emphasis on faith itself. Faith is rather like a rhinoceros, in fact: it won't do much in the way of real work for you, and yet at close quarters it will make spectacular claims upon your attention. (215)

While this is not a treatise on Eastern spirituality, it does not seem out of place to briefly examine the differences between the Eastern and the Western canons, for they are genuinely startling. To illustrate this point, I have selected a passage at random from a shelf of Buddhist literature. The following text was found with closed eyes, on the first attempt, from among scores of books. I invite the reader to find anything even remotely like this in the Bible or the Koran.
[I]n the present moment, when (your mind) remains in its own
condition without constructing anything,
Awareness at that moment in itself is quite ordinary.
And when you look into yourself in this way nakedly (without
any discursive thoughts),
Since there is only this pure observing, there will be found a lucid
clarity without anyone being there who is the observer;
Only a naked manifest awareness is present.
(This awareness) is empty and immaculately pure, not being created
by anything whatsoever.
It is authentic and unadulterated, without any duality of clarity
and emptiness.
It is not permanent and yet it is not created by anything.
However, it is not a mere nothingness or something annihilated
because it is lucid and present.
It does not exist as a single entity because it is present and clear
in terms of being many.
(On the other hand) it is not created as a multiplicity of things
because it is inseparable and of a single flavor.
This inherent self-awareness does not derive from anything outside
This is the real introduction to the actual condition of things.
One could live an eon as a Christian, a Muslim, or a Jew and never encounter any teachings like this about the nature of consciousness. The comparison with Islam is especially invidious, because Padmasambhava was virtually Muhammad's contemporary. While the meaning of the above passage might not be perfectly apparent to all readers—it is just a section of a longer teaching on the nature of mind and contains a fair amount of Buddhist jargon ("clarity," "emptiness," "single flavor," etc.)—it is a rigorously empirical document, not a statement of metaphysics. (216)

You are now seated, reading this book. Your past is a memory. Your future is a matter of mere expectation. Both memories and expectations can arise in consciousness only as thoughts in the present moment.
Of course, reading is itself a species of thinking. You can probably hear the sound of your own voice reading these words in your mind. These sentences do not feel like your thoughts, however. Your thoughts are the ones that arrive unannounced and steal you away from the text. They may have some relevance to what you are now reading—you may think, "Didn't he just contradict himself there?"—or they may have no relevance at all. You may suddenly find yourself thinking about tonight's dinner, or about an argument you had days ago, even while your eyes still blindly scan lines of text. We all know what it is like to read whole paragraphs, and even pages of a book without assimilating a word. Few of us realize that we spend most of our lives in such a state: perceiving the present— present sights, sounds, tastes, and sensations—only dimly, through a veil of thought. We spend our lives telling ourselves the story of past and future, while the reality of the present goes largely unexplored. Now we live in ignorance of the freedom and simplicity of consciousness, prior to the arising of thought. (218-19)

Only 28 percent of Americans believe in evolution; 72 percent believe in angels. (230)

Through meditation, a person can come to observe the flow of his experience with remarkable clarity, and this sometimes results in a variety of insights that people tend to find both intellectually credible and personally transformative. As I discuss in the final chapter of the book, one of these insights is that the feeling we call "I"—the sense that we are the thinker of our thoughts, the experiencer of our experiences—can disappear when looked for in a rigorous way. This is not a proposition to be accepted on faith; it is an empirical observation, analogous to the discovery of one's optic blind spots. Most people never notice their blind spots (caused by the transit of the optic nerve through the retina of each eye), but they can be pointed out to almost anyone with a little effort. The absence of the "self" can also be pointed out with some effort, though this discovery tends to require considerably more training on the part of both teacher and student. The only faith required to get such a project off the ground is the faith of scientific hypothesis. The hypothesis is this: If I use my attention in a certain way, it may have a specific, reproducible effect. Needless to say, what happens (or fails to happen) along any path of "spiritual" practice must be interpreted in light of some conceptual scheme, and everything should be open to rational argument. (235)

There are days when almost every headline in the morning paper attests to the social costs of religious faith, and the nightly news seems miraculously broadcast from the fourteenth century. (236)

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