The End of Faith

One very positive development, following the publication of Sam Harris’ The End of Faith, is that commentators on the issue are occasionally taking pains to identify themselves what one might call “moderate athiests”. See, for example, this review by David Niose of Humanist magazine.

While I’m happy to say that Harris is mostly right, and that reviewers like Niose miss the point (more on this later), it’s still good that the spectrum of opinion is broadening. Athiests have typically been lumped together as if they speak with a collective voice – that voice usually characterised as unsympathetic, hostile, prone to moral collapse (given their lack of divine motivation), etc. This assumption of a collective voice is in part a rhetorical trick which makes it easier to dismiss non-metaphysical views of the world, as it blurs the distinctions between the rabid anti-Christian/Muslim/whatever and those who are generally concerned with holding beliefs to account on evidentiary standards.

Harris caused quite a commotion, given his controversial points of view (endorsing the occasional correctness of torture, for example), and the commotion was widely heard following endorsements of the book by luminaries like Dawkins, Dershowitz and Peter Singer. The End of Faith presents such an uncompromising view of the dangers of religious belief that more tolerant unbelievers seem to now be clamouring to say that not all athiests are like Harris – some, in fact, would happily take tea with the Pastor. And this is good, whether the moderates are right or wrong, because it could start reminding participants to the debate that in the spectrum of beliefs from theism to atheism, the positions available on the way to either extreme are multiple, and that the culturally-endorsed practise of dismissing points of view as soon as they appear tinged with non-theism of any sort is irresponsible and lazy.

As far as Niose’s review itself is concerned, my initial response is that Harris may well concede that he sometimes chose examples poorly. He may also want to say that his focusing exclusively on religion is a rhetorical device, rather than a commitment to the thesis that all evil has religion at it’s root. It would be very difficult to justify the thesis that politics, economics, etc. don’t have any role, and I can’t see Harris wanting to try. It may be true that Harris gets somewhat carried away by his fervour – I don’t think it was, for example, necessary to deal with torture at all, but after introducing it, Harris should have made more of an effort to justify his point of view. He’s taken on a difficult enough challenge, and there’s no need to uneccessarily alienate potential sympathisers.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.