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Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason
Sam Harris
Book Review

"I know of no society in human history that ever suffered because its people became too reasonable"
Sam Harris

With this simple statement, Harris captures his most basic thesis. The converse, of course is not true, a point which Harris makes again and again with poignant examples.

Harris is an interesting writer who is calling for a truly modern system for ethics and a spirituality that combines both humanism and secularism. His argument is not for atheism, but an argument against dogma.

Viewed in this light, the crusading and witch-hunting popes differed not at all from Hitler, Stalin, Mao, or Pot Pol. Violence, terror, war and genocide can be either religious, racial, or secular in origin, or even have flavors of all as with Hitler. Each involved a dogma or dogmas. Harris admirably illustrates that dogma is irrational.

Dogma has motivated senseless killing throughout the ages, and Harris recounts the awfulness of the ancients as well as the moderns. For example he quotes:

"Mothers were skewered on swords as their children watched. Young women were stripped and raped in broad daylight, then... set on fire. A pregnant woman's belly was slit open, her fetus raised skyward on the tip of a sword and then tossed onto one of the fires that blazed across the city."

This was not medieval, it was in the 21st century, in modern India: NY Times, 27 July 2002. Human capacity for depravity seems to know no bounds and is not yet confined to any one era of history.

While not exempting the Christians and Jews of blame, Harris points out a basic irony accompanying the suicide bombers: "...the most sexually repressive people found in the world today -- people who are stirred to a killing spree by reruns of Baywatch -- are lured to martyrdom by the conception of paradise that resembles nothing so much as an al fresco bordello."

For the Christians, Harris points to Auschwitz, the Cathar heresy, and Witch Hunts for equally irrational and abhorrent behavior carried out directly or indirectly by "Christians."

As for the Jews, Harris needed only the Old Testament:

  • What is the punishment for taking the Lord's name in vain? "Death" - Leviticus 24:16
  • What is the punishment for cursing one's father or mother? "Death" - Exodus 21:17
  • What is the punishment for adultry? "Death" - Leviticus 20:10.

Harris did not bother to mention Palestine in this passage, though he touches on the conflict several times.

Harris gets to a core issue for this web site:

"It is time we recognize that the only thing that permits human beings to collaborate with one another in a truly open-ended way is their willingness to have their beliefs modified by new facts. Only openness to evidence and argument will secure a common world for us. Nothing guarantees that reasonable people will agree about every thing, of course, but the unreasonable are certain to be divided by their dogmas. This spirit of mutual inquiry is the very antithesis of religious faith."

Harris is not irreligious. For example he prays:

"I pray that we may one day think clearly enough about these matters to render our children incapable of killing themselves over their books."

Harris also has meat for the curious as well as the scholar. His chapters on the "Nature of Belief" and "Science of Good and Evil" attest to the strength of his logic. For example:

"...religion is one of the great limiters of moral identity, since most believers, differentiate themselves, in moral terms, from those who do not share their faith. No other idiology is so eloquent on the subject of what divides one moral community from another. Once a person accepts the premises upon which most religious identities are built, the withdrawal of his moral concern from those who do not share these premises follows quite naturally."

This book rates five stars for its daring eloquence while preserving faith, not as dogma, but as something that needs to move with the times. The alternative is never ending wars over whose dogma provides the final word.


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