Monday, August 12, 2013

The End of Faith or Reason?

Dual Book Review.
The End of Faith by Sam Harris and
The End of Reason by Ravi Zacharias (a response to Harris)

The End of Faith
This book is the most scathing attack on religion I have ever read.  Throughout the entire book, Harris berates all religious belief and religious people.  He does this in two ways: by pointing out all of the bad things throughout history that can be linked to religion, and by name calling at every possible opportunity.  He uses words like irrational, unsupported, ignorant, unreasonable, and just about any other related adjective to describe religious beliefs or people.  The repetitious put-downs alone might be enough to dissuade apathetic believers from their religion.  Overall, there are three very big problems with this book: little to no differentiation between different religions or intellectual vs. blind faith, poor reasoning (at least when discussing religion), and a lack of argumentation for what is true as opposed to what Sam Harris prefers.

The basic thesis of the book is that all religious faith is blind faith, and blind faith is bad (except for blind faith in Sam Harris, which is good).  Harris speaks as though he is a definitive source of knowledge and authority and should not be questioned.  His words make him sound as though he is a premier Bible scholar and a highly regarded source of knowledge  This is an attractive writing style, but is extremely comical when he is wrong.   One of many instances is on page 64 when he is talking about a Bible verse, Hebrews 11:1, he makes the statement, “Read in the right way, this passage....”  Unfortunately, Harris doesn’t read it in the right way, not even close, and butchers the verse to fit what he wants it to believe.  The verse says that faith is conviction of things not seen.  Harris decides “things not seen” means without evidence.  By this same reasoning, Harris does not believe in the wind or any other thing that cannot be or has not been seen.  A couple minutes of critical thinking or research would have revealed his error.  This is one of many similar examples that plague the entire book.

Throughout the whole book Harris suspends critical thinking and scholarly integrity as soon as he discusses religion.  Perhaps the draw of this book is that he does speak very intelligibly when he is discussing non-religious matters such as reason, perception, and even moral responsibility.  I even agree with him on many of his non-religious views.  However, when he switches back to religion, without exaggeration, nearly every one of his statements is absolutely ridiculous, especially when discussing Christianity.  These rapid shifts from reasonable to nonsensical literally made me laugh out loud more than once.

However, as bad as this book is, I think it will ultimately be good for Christianity.  This book does not actually criticize Christianity, it criticizes a straw man version of Christianity that Harris constructed using a combination of abuses throughout history and extremely poor Bible scholarship.  I don’t recall a single instance where Harris offers a real, genuine criticism of Christianity.  Which brings me to another major problem with this book, which is that there is a huge glaring hole in it.

The books seems like it should be a sequel because Harris never once attempts to construct an argument that suggests that Christianity or any other religion is false.  The entire book is a collection of examples of bad things attributed to religion, with no scientific or logical evidence that any religious belief is false or even that it is entirely responsible.  When blaming religion for atrocities, he simply cites a historical example of something bad and since it was committed by religious people he concludes that all religious belief is bad.  He doesn’t go back to the religious text to see if the believers were accurately representing their belief, discriminate between different types of beliefs and believers, nor does he mention why most religious people today also find those things wrong.  Had he done that, he would have found that all the terrible things done in the name of religion (at least Christianity) are abuses of doctrine, not logical conclusions of it.

In contrast, when discussing the millions of deaths attributable to atheists, he explains it away (very poorly) in a few lines and moves on.  He doesn't apply any level of scrutiny or deeper consideration to the matter.  Not only that, but he seems completely unaware of the logical conclusions of his views or any atheistic views.  He merely blames it on government instead of atheism, and irrationality instead of rationality (but doesn't explain why it is irrational in an atheistic framework).  He doesn't seem to understand that the crimes committed by Stalin and Mao, at el., are examples of the many logical out-workings out atheism.  When you have no reasonable foundation for what is considered right, then you can reasonably justify any behavior.

The result of a book that is so poorly reasoned can only be good for Christianity.  I think it will merely “separate the sheep from the goats” (Matthew 25:31-46) and will help purify Christianity in the West.  This book is way too poorly thought out to impact any serious Christian.  It will only be seductive to those who are already biased against religion or lack experience critically evaluating a powerful voice that speaks from a such a strong position of authority.  The entire book is scholastically and philosophically weak.  Harris’ words are without a logical foundation, lack any serious rational thought, and are therefore, empty and powerless.

The End of Reason
After reading Harris, I can see why Zacharias wrote The End of Reason.  On the one hand, I don’t think this book is necessary because the arguments in The End of Faith are so terrible.  However, since so many people were taken in by Harris’ book, I suppose it is good  that there is a response.  Ravi’s response is very good, but there is a somewhat big problem with it.  His response is very broad and it often goes much deeper into philosophy than Harris.  The result is that his arguments might be seen as misrepresenting Harris’ positions or may go over the heads of those who were taken captive by The End of Faith.

Overall, Ravi’s response is right on, but he deals with Harris’ arguments at a level that is so much deeper, sometimes it seems like he is discussing a different topic.  He responds to multiple arguments from Harris at one time as they all have the same issue and then discusses critiques those arguments at their philosophical roots. I this book might be more effective if he dealt with Harris’ arguments more specifically and at a more basic level (at least before going deeper into philosophy).  However, had he done this, Ravi would have had to have been even more selective with which arguments he refuted because there was just so much bad information and poor reasoning in The End of Faith that a comprehensive response would be much too long.  Ravi also critiques arguments from Harris’ other book, Letters to a Christian Nation, which I assume is very similar in content and style to The End of Faith.  I assume  Ravi’s responses to that book are just as good, but also just as deep as his responses to The End of Faith, but I cannot really offer an opinion until I read Letters to a Christian Nation.

I don’t want to necessarily recommend people not read The End of Faith because it is such a popular book for atheism; however, if you do decide to read it, I think you will find it was a huge waste of time.  If you liked it and thought it was worthwhile, then I would recommend following it up with The End of Reason, and not just read it, but go back and forth between the books and really evaluate both positions.  The End of Reason is a very good book, but I’m not sure it is a necessary read for people who could see through Harris’ poor reasoning or haven’t read either of  his first two books, although it still may be good to gain a basic understanding of Christian apologetics.

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