Tuesday, February 07, 2006

The End of Faith

I've devoured about half of Sam Harris' The End of Faith (W.W. Norton, 2005). It's recommended reading. Throughout the first two chapters, Harris repeatedly drums in the point that while supernaturalism has a menagerie of beliefs it has nothing to show for it. Faith is not evidence-based.

Harris certainly pulls no punches, and he openly describes Islam as a religion whose tradition promotes violence. (Maybe Harris aspires to be the Salman Rushdie of America) In the chapter "The Problem with Islam" he provides a listing--five pages worth--of verses from the Koran that call for the condemnation, punishment, and death of infidels/unbelievers. Those who've been telling us that Islam is basically a religion of peace are blind or just want to keep us blind or wish to mislead us.

Lots of quotables in the book to choose from. Here's a sampling:
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 killling and dying for them--would be impossible to justify. What stops us from finding it impossible now? (p. 24)

It is time we admitted ... that there is no evidence that any of our books was authored 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. (p. 45)

Faith is what credulity becomes when it finally achieves escape velocity from the constraints of terrestrial discourse--constraints like reasonableness, internal coherence, civility, and candor. (p. 65)

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. (p. 67)

While his no-holds-barred critique obviously got my nod, I was stunned when I came across the following line: "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." (p. 41) In the footnote Harris points us to literature by Radin, Sheldrake, and Bobrow. In the same note Harris says "There may even be some credible evidence for reincarnation." He also provides references for this.

You hear that snarl? I think I just woke up James Randi.

Harris' confession is a letdown. It's ironic that while he's emphatic about religion having no evidence for its various fantastical claims, he seems to uncritically accept the shoddy evidence for the paranormal. But the fact is parapsychology has been at it for decades and there still is no good scientific evidence to suggest the existence of psychic phenomena. As they say the more controls are put in place the less positive results there are. Bad experimental design and bad methodology may be the only things that are producing the so-called "significant" results.

There are skeptics who are supernaturalists. Likewise there are atheists who've been seduced by paranormal claims. It looks like Harris is one of them.


Danny Boy, FCD said...

Ah yes, his so-called rational mysticism. He has gone under fire from several skeptics and atheists for his wafling regarding the paranormal/supernatural. He has answered his critics in the revised edition of his book End of Faith, as well as an essay attacking one of his detractors in Free Inquiry Magazine.

I think his position is still questionable, his defenses weak; and his chapter on meditation and rational mysticism is easily the worst part of his book.

Anonymous said...

Harris, while writing a mostly superb book on the delusion that is religion, appears to believe (without any credible evidence) that the mystic parts of buddhism are valid. Buddhism in its purest form takes no position on the existence or otherwise of god. The benefits of meditation which Harris has promoted, are really nothing more than the benefits of taking time and sitting with absolutely nothing to do. If you do this long enough you begin to feel a bit weird. Doubtless than can be mistaken for a 'spiritual experience'

In his book Harris seems to take for granted the existence of a spiritual element to human consciousness, without ever explaining what he means by spiritual. Surely he cannot expect us to take this on faith?

Jose Juan Paraiso said...

Most atheist or anti-Christian writers shares Harris weakness. Sometimes they tend to discredit a belief to inject their own belief system.