The End of Faith

“What will we do if an Islamist regime, which grows dewy-eyed at the mere mention of paradise, ever acquires long-range nuclear weaponry? If history is any guide, we will not be sure about where the offending warheads are or what their state of readiness is, and so we will be unable to rely on targeted, conventional weapons to destroy them. In such a situation, the only thing likely to ensure our survival may be a nuclear first strike of our own.”


These are the bold words of Sam Harris, in his 2005 book The End of Faith, which may be better remembered by the nickname, Out of Context. Not that the material is out of context, but the style is direct enough such that certain quotes such as the above can be (and apparently has been) perceived in a completely wrong way if an attacker chooses to strip passages of their context. Apparently this very passage above has sparked controversy, primarily because someone quotes just the bad-sounding part (that we are justified in carrying out a nuclear first strike), and nothing before or after it.

Here is the full paragraph (p. 128):

“It should be of particular concern to us that the beliefs of Muslims pose a special problem for nuclear deterrence. There is little possibility of our having a cold war with an Islamist regime armed with long-range nuclear weapons. A cold war requires that the parties be mutually deterred by the threat of death. Notions of martyrdom and jihad run roughshod over the logic that allowed the United States and the Soviet Union to pass half a century perched, more or less stably, on the brink of Armageddon. What will we do if an Islamist regime, which grows dewy-eyed at the mere mention of paradise, ever acquires long-range nuclear weaponry? If history is any guide, we will not be sure about where the offending warheads are or what their state of readiness is, and so we will be unable to rely on targeted, conventional weapons to destroy them. In such a situation, the only thing likely to ensure our survival may be a nuclear first strike of our own. Needless to say, this would be an unthinkable crime—as it would kill tens of millions of innocent civilians in a single day—but it may be the only course of action available to us, given what Islamists believe. How would such an unconscionable act of self-defense be perceived by the rest of the Muslim world? It would likely be seen as the first incursion of a genocidal crusade. The horrible irony here is that seeing could make it so: this very perception could plunge us into a state of hot war with any Muslim state that had the capacity to pose a nuclear threat of its own. All of this is perfectly insane, of course: I have just described a plausible scenario in which much of the world’s population could be annihilated on account of religious ideas that belong on the same shelf with Batman, the philosopher’s stone, and unicorns. That it would be a horrible absurdity for so many of us to die for the sake of myth does not mean, however, that it could not happen. Indeed, given the immunity to all reasonable intrusions that faith enjoys in our discourse, a catastrophe of this sort seems increasingly likely. We must come to terms with the possibility that men who are every bit as zealous to die as the nineteen hijackers may one day get their hands on long-range nuclear weaponry. The Muslim world in particular must anticipate this possibility and find some way to prevent it. Given the steady proliferation of technology, it is safe to say that time is not on our side.”

This is indeed a troubling thought.

Overall, Harris’s book is far more direct than even Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, which for the most part has a detached, academic tone. Harris’s tone is more dire.

More than Dawkins, Harris emphasizes the problem with the Western tolerance of intolerance in religion. Dawkins pointed out that there is an undeserved respect for religion. Any discussion of religion in current society can be dismissed as rude or offensive if the religious person deems it so. However, Harris goes further and calls out Western intellectuals who are religious moderates or even nonreligious for going along with and appeasing religion.

Also, since the passage above was about Islam, let’s be a little politically correct here and include something about Christianity (p. 73):

“Jesus Christ—who, as it turns out, was born of a virgin, cheated death, and rose bodily to 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. Because each new generation of children is taught that religious propositions need not be justified in the way that all others must, civilization is still besieged by the armies of the preposterous. We are, even now, killing ourselves over ancient literature. Who could have thought something so tragically absurd could be possible?”

This echoes a Robert Pirsig quote: “When one person suffers from a delusion, it is called insanity. When many people suffer from a delusion it is called a Religion.”

Unlike Dawkins, who strongly cares about the intellectual dishonesty or delusion imposed by religion, Harris seems to exert all of his effort on the practical consequences (31):

“As I have said, people of faith tend to argue that it is not faith itself but man’s baser nature that inspires such violence. But I take it to be self-evident that ordinary people cannot be moved to burn genial old scholars alive for blaspheming the Koran, or celebrate the violent deaths of their children, unless they believe some improbable things about the nature of the universe. Because most religions offer no valid mechanism by which their core beliefs can be tested and revised, each new generation of believers is condemned to inherit the superstitions and tribal hatreds of its predecessors. If we would speak of the baseness of our natures, our willingness to live, kill, and die on account of propositions for which we have no evidence should be among the first topics of discussion.”

Even more on violence (27):

“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 sword and then tossed onto one of the fires that blazed across the city.

This is not an account of the Middle Ages, nor is it a tale from Middle Earth. This is our world. The cause of this behavior was not economic, it was not racial, and it was not political. The above passage describes the violence that erupted between Hindus and Muslims in India in the winter of 2002. The only difference between these groups consists in what they believe about God. Over one thousand people died in this monthlong series of riots—nearly half as many as have died in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in more than a decade. And these are tiny numbers, considering the possibilities.”

The “possibilities” most likely refer to a nuclear war between India and Pakistan.

And let’s not forget:

“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.”

Addressing the claim that suicide bombing is caused by economics and not faith, Harris writes:

“The speciousness of this claim is best glimpsed by the bright light of bomb blasts. Where are the Palestinian Christian suicide bombers? They, too, suffer the daily indignity of the Israeli occupation. Where, for that matter, are the Tibetan Buddhist suicide bombers? The Tibetans have suffered an occupation far more cynical and repressive than any that the United States or Israel has ever imposed upon the Muslim world. Where are the throngs of Tibetans ready to perpetrate suicidal atrocities against Chinese noncombatants? They do not exist. What is the difference that makes the difference? The difference lies in the specific tenets of Islam. This is not to say that Buddhism could not help inspire suicidal violence. It can, and it has (Japan, World War II). But this concedes absolutely nothing to the apologists for Islam. As a Buddhist, one has to work extremely hard to justify such barbarism. One need not work nearly so hard as a Muslim.

Recent events in Iraq offer further corroboration on this point. It is true, of course, that the Iraqi people have been traumatized by decades of war and repression. But war and repression do not account for suicidal violence directed against the Red Cross, the Untied Nations, foreign workers, and Iraqi innocents. War and repression would not have attracted an influx of foreign fighters willing to sacrifice their lives merely to sow chaos. The Iraqi insurgents have not been motivated principally by political or economic grievances. They have such grievances, of course, but politics and economics do not get a man to intentionally blow himself up in a crowd of children, or to get his mother to sing his praises for it. Miracles of this order generally require religious faith.

And finally, another great passage is the first paragraph of the epilogue:

“My goal in writing this book has been to help close the door to a certain style of irrationality. While religious faith is the one species of human ignorance that will not admit of even the possibility of correction, it is still sheltered from criticism in every corner of our culture. Forsaking all valid sources of information about this world (both spiritual and mundane), our religions have seized upon ancient taboos and prescientific fancies as though they held ultimate metaphysical significance. Books that embrace the narrowest spectrum of political, moral, scientific, and spiritual understanding—books that, by their antiquity alone, offer us the most dilute wisdom with respect to the present—are still dogmatically thrust upon us as the final word on matters of great significance. In the best case, faith leaves the otherwise well-intentioned incapable of thinking rationally about many of their deepest concerns; at worst, it is a continuous source of human violence. Even now, many of us are motivated not by what we know but by what we are content merely to imagine. Many are still eager to sacrifice happiness, compassion, and justice in this world, for a fantasy world to come. These and other degradations await us along the well-worn path of piety. Whatever our religious differences may mean for the next life, they have only one terminus in this one—a future of ignorance and slaughter.”

This book is a must-read for anyone who cares about the next century of world history. We are nearing a point where the progress of civilization can be abruptly reversed by a group of irrational agents, and our chances for survival will depend ever increasingly on the ability to not get ourselves destroyed.

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