Tuesday, December 13, 2005

The End of Faith, God Willing

I recently finished reading Sam Harris' book The End of Faith. It was a fascinating read that really made me rethink the utility and danger of faith, most prominently demonstrated by religion. In particular, Harris is concerned by faith that is out of reach of both criticism and debate. This is especially dangerous in the Big Three religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam), all of which claim that their religion is the only true religion and that those not subscribing to it are damned. Thus the setup for inevitable conflict. The only reason that Christianity has mellowed, Harris claims, is due to secular influences. I would very much agree.

Such criticism of faith and religion is not new. What was new to me, however, were Harris' criticisms of religious moderates. He claims that moderates are complicit in the acts of terrorism or harm done by religious extremists. Because moderates believe in at least some of the dogma of a given religion, they have no grounds on which to argue against a completely literal interpretation of the religious text. In other words, they are on the same spectrum of belief as the extremist, where at some level their faith becomes dissociated from reason.

Harris covers a broad range of topics in the book. One I would like to mention is torture, given the recent press coverage and Joe's recent post (see Torture Nation, 10/7). Harris' arguments were a little harder to follow here, but I believe his main thrust is that torture is no different than collateral damage caused in a war. In other words, in fighting a war, both are potential unfortunate consequences necessary to succeed. He seems to forget about intention through all of this: there is certainly no intention to kill innocent bystanders in a war (although we might expect this to happen), but there is clearly intention to torture someone as a means to an end.

With that said, I continue to struggle with the torture issue. In the oft-cited example, a captive holds information about a bomb he has planted that will kill thousands of people, but he is unwilling to give that information. Should he be subject to torture that we might save thousands of lives? Assuming we know him to be guilty and involved, the answer is clearly yes from a utilitarian perspective. And yet, therein lies the potential of gross misuse of torture, for how can we ever truly know whether we have the right man? Is the information gained by torture reliable? From a practical standpoint at least, there are many doubts about cost-benefit of torture.

I would encourage everyone out there to read Harris' book (by the way, Harris has a degree in philosophy and is a doctoral candidate in neuroscience - I love him already). I would also love to hear any discussion on these issues. Some excerpts from the book you might enjoy:

“Tell a devout Christian that his wife is cheating on him, or that frozen yogurt can make a man invisible, and he is likely to require as much evidence as anyone else, and to be persuaded only to the extent that you give it. Tell him that the book he keeps by his bed was written by an invisible deity who will punish him with fire for eternity if he fails to accept its every incredible claim about the universe, and he seems to require no evidence whatsoever.” (page 19)

“We live in an age in which most people believe that mere words— ‘Jesus,’ ‘Allah,’ ‘Ram’—can mean the difference between eternal torment and bliss everlasting. Considering the stakes here, it is not surprising that many of us occasionally find it necessary to murder other human beings for using the wrong magic words, or the right ones for the wrong reasons. How can any person presume to know that this is the way the universe works? Because it says so in our holy books. How do we know that our holy books are free from error? Because the books themselves say so. Epistemological black holes of this sort are fast draining the light from our world.” (page 35)

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