Friday, August 25, 2006

The Summer Read I Just Couldn't
Seen a man standin' over a dead dog lyin' by the highway in a ditch.
He's lookin' down kinda puzzled pokin' that dog with a stick.
Got his car door flung open he's standin' out on Highway 31.
Like if he stood there long enough that dog'd get up and run.
-- “Reason to Believe”
I had not heard the final song from Bruce Springsteen’s 1990 album Nebraska in more than 10 years, but the opening lyrics came to mind while reading the first few chapters of Sam Harris’ book, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason (2004). Springsteen’s song is a bitter joke that comes at the end of an album filled with nihilistic despair, so, I was not surprised that my memory would call up this song while reading Harris’ depressing words:
“Despite the considerable exertions of men like [theologian Paul] Tillich who has attempted to hide the serpent lurking at the foot of every altar, the truth is that religious faith is simply unjustified belief in matters of ultimate concern – specifically in the propositions that promise some mechanism by which human life can be spared the ravages of time and death.”
An atheist friend suggested I read Harris’ book after I invited him to comment on my first post on this blog, Faith, Liberals, and Biscuits. He sent me an email complimenting me on my new hobby, made a snide comment about an admittedly shallow theological remark I made in the post and suggested I read Harris’ book. (Thanks for the prescription, Jimbo.)
End of Faith comes at a time when the Neocons and car bombers are sharing the news and beginning to wear down the American public; Harris started writing the book on September 12, 2001. Harris’ solution to the turmoil religion created was to destroy religion for the sake of world peace. Does Harris really think we will all be happier without God or, for his sake, the concept of God? Absolutely. In fact, reading End of Faith is a horrifying experience. “Words like ‘God’ and ‘Allah’ must go the way of ‘Apollo’ and ‘Baal,’ or they will unmake our world.” While he spends most of his time with fundamentalists in his sights, it is a bit strange how he seems to believe that even religious moderates are capable of anything. This, of course, is not a revelation to a Muslim, Jew or Christian. We have asserted from the Beginning that man is capable of atrocities, just as he is capable of lying or stealing an apple from a market; it is called “sin nature.”
If you can remove yourself from any religious predilections and look at the world with pure logic, most of Harris’ views are difficult to refute. Still, who is his audience here? Is he preaching to the choir? (Sorry folks, I just couldn’t help myself.) If he is trying to convert believers to the abyss it is a hard sell. Ask anyone who believes in God, whether their deity goes by Jehovah, Yahweh, Allah or some nebulous entity, and he’ll tell you the idea of abandoning this supreme belief for Harris’ solution is impossible to reconcile with what he knows and feels.
It is not just a choice of which is more sensible; any staunch nonbeliever who reads the Bible is confounded by the idea that millions of people throughout the ages lived and died not only understanding, but also believing in this nonsense. Any college student sufficiently full of himself can read Harris’ book and come away with the idea that this author has found the panacea for religious fanaticism. Conversely, anyone who has gone beyond Harris’ worldly assertions can see how utterly foolish they are and, Biblically speaking, “full of dead men’s bones.” (For a review far more eloquent then these comments by someone who, I trust, was able to finish the book, check out: Matthew Simpson’s review posted April, 5, 2005 at www.ChristianityToday.com.)
Ultimately, Harris writes off the religious folk as people who have never reflected on the intellectual foundations of their beliefs. If his book is so tactfully written to cloak his contempt for Christians and other Believers, the titles of some of his posts in the Huffingtonpost like “Science Must Destroy Religion” and the presumptive “There is No God (And You Know It)” remove all doubt. Of course, there are plenty of contemporary works of religious philosophy to discount his claim. One that stands out can be found in To Everyone an Answer (2004), a collection of Christian apologies focusing on subjects that include God’s existence, Intelligent Design, miracles, and Christianity v other faiths and cults, among others subjects.
Like James Moreland and Kai Nielsen’s Does God Exist? and Peter Kreeft’s Fundamentals of the Faith, I found To Everyone an Answer at the bookstore and “just had to have it.” In addition, like so many other books I impulsively purchase, this one could have spent years on the shelf unopened if it had not been for Harris’ impish opus, the Lord works in mysterious ways.
One essay, “A Thomistic Cosmological Argument,” by W. David Beck, lays out the logic of God’s presence and our place in His universe. TheThomistic Cosmological Argument comes from Thomas Aquinas, the 13th-century philosopher and theologian. His Cosmological Argument, as it is commonly known, is based on three premises:
  1. What we observe in this universe is contingent. Nothing we see exists in and of themselves.
  2. A sequence of causally related contingent things cannot be infinite. Just as one boxcar pulls another that pulls another, the boxcars cannot be infinite; there must be an initial cause, like the train’s engine.
  3. The sequence of causally dependent contingent things must be finite. The premise that completes the logic is that if the sequence cannot be infinite, then it must be finite.
His conclusion is that there must be a first cause in the sequence of contingent causes. Still, pessimists like Harris can retort that the initial cause was a “big bang” or something similar. What actually caused the initial “big bang” that ultimately ended in you and me is something Darwin, his followers and, I would assume, Harris would simply shine on as a goal for future science to patch up along with all the “Origin of the Species” holes.

I hate the idea of not finishing a book I started – almost as much as I hate walking out of a movie, even if it really stinks. It is just that I have so many books I want to read, and being such a slow reader, the list of books I want to read only grows longer when I am dragging my eyeballs across the lines of a suicide-inducing tome like this one.
I would like to think that Harris would consider the words of Beck and other apologists in To Everyone an Answer, but in the time it took me to read what little I did from this depressing book and all the time this post spent in my jump drive waiting for me to finish it, a new book from Harris titled Letter to a Christian Nation has been published. From the blurbs on the Amazon.com site, it sounds like another tombstone.

4 comments:

The Doubting Thomas said...

Jockomo "Jack"...Thank you for signing my guestbook and visiting my blog. I appreciate it very much. I like your blog! I'll put your link on my blog!

This Harris guy and all illogical philosophers, atheists etc. need to contemplate "Prime Genesis." If "Big Bang" is true or if "Continuous Creation" or "Creation Equillibrium" is true, either way... (and String Theory is questioning the idea of "Big Bang.") ,instead of "denying" a Creator and Creation..BOTH VERIFIES A CREATOR AND CREATION! It is the ONLY logical conclusion one can make because "We think therefore we are!" EXISTENCE ITSELF IS THE PROOF OF CREATION!

There are 2 questions that philosophy cannot answer without science and vice-versa... "Why Creation in the first place and how it happened?"
How and why are different questions and NEITHER affects the other. Those who believe that science can EXPLAIN the WHY of existence and therefore can destroy "religion" do not understand the difference between the questions of why and how. The "battle" between religion and science is therefore entirely an illusion created by ignorance of BOTH!
I have not read Harris's book but I am confident that his "thinking" is shallow and illogical. I suspect the reason behind why a person refuses to "believe" in God can be reduced to one simple word....MORALITY....we want to do as we please without fear of the consequences to ourselves and others. EVERYTHING we experience in life is a variation on the "original lie" of "surely you shall not die." If it "feels good"...DO IT!

No matter what ANYONE tells you.."there are no atheists in a foxhole."

Pax....Doubting Thomas (David)

Buzz said...

Nice review Jock. I haven't read the book, but as an agnostic I certainly understand and respect others' desire to have a religion and a spiritual belief system.

Of course, it's true that fanatical fundamentalism in any religion has certainly been the foundation of numberless atrocities in our planet's history. And some zealots certainly hold religious ideas that are interpreted as "we are the only true followers, and all others must die! (or be not protected by the law, etc.") There's a problem there, as I know you agree. But the solution isn't to attempt to convince all these zealots that God doesn't exist (for who can claim to know that?), or that their belief system is without merit, which is what it sounds like this author is saying, according to your take.

I think part of the solution comes from moderates and good people like yourself working within your religion as a voice of intelligent reason. "Hey guys, maybe God doesn't hate fags...and maybe we ought to stay out of their business?" Or "Hey guys, praise Allah, but maybe we shouldn't stone women to death whose burqas ride up a half inch!" Another solution, IMHO, are secular governments that pass laws that say "we don't care what your (or our) religion says, stoning women is henceforth illegal."

And I don't disbelieve in God simply so I can live an immoral lifestyle. Can we have morals, ethics, believe in the redemptive power of love, trust, fellowship, family, communicty, and act accordingly, without having a spiritual belief system? Of course! Just like someone can have a strong belief in a creator and spiritual principles, and also live an immoral life of unethical behavior.

WhatSystem said...

Thanks, Buzz. The irony about Harris is that his main targets are religious MODERATES – the very same people you have little problem with. His thesis would fall apart if he didn’t include ALL religious people. He does a bondo/primer job of fixing this gaping hole by asserting that moderates (like Presbyterians, who have embraced women in the ministry and – for the most part – do not preach against gays/lesbians) are not critical of their extremist brothers (Southern Baptists, who exclude women from the pastorate and preach against homosexuality). For a Stanford graduate student, this is remedial apologetics.

In addition, when it comes to fanatical fundamentalism being the foundation of numberless atrocities in our planet's history Harris conveniently downplays all the other acts of genocide and massacres that have absolutely NOTHING to do with religion. I am sure these passages in the book would insult any of the survivors of Stalin’s Great Purge, The Khmer Rouge’s, Killing Fields, or even the Columbine High School Massacre.

Dang it Buzz, now you got me all worked up again. I feel like slitting this guy’s tires!

Anonymous said...

Jockomo, I don't know where you live, but your comments are so intellectual that you couldn't be from the United States. So here's a comment from that low-brow nation.
I haven't read Harris's book, but I saw him on TV talking about his book. He spoke impressively, but I've seen too many people act better because of their religious faith to believe that there's no value in religious belief. Who's to say whether the universe was created by an all-powerful benevolent being? Not me. I wasn't there. But maybe human nature is such that we operate better when we believe in such a being.