What does an empiricist believe?

The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason
By Sam Harris
256 pages W.W. Norton, 2004

Reviewed by Benjamin Rutter

In the early months of the century, Sam Harris found himself apprenticed in the study of the brain. Combing over colored scans of minds at work, Harris, who is a graduate student, sought to correlate cognition and behavior. On September 12, 2001, his own behavior changed, and he began to write a book. Adjustments in his circuitry had corresponded in those days to the view that something in the world was going quickly, badly wrong. What was this? Elected leaders spoke of moral evil. For his colleagues at the MRI lab, the trouble hung in a mesh of inequalities. For Harris, however, the answer was more simple. The world had fallen ill not from want of goodness, or of goods, but from a diet poor in basic information.

What stokes Harris to a rage — you can see the blooms of scarlet in his brain scan — is not ignorance itself but its willful cultivation. It is said that we could feed the world with the grain we leave to rot. And for Harris, we could snuff out war with nothing but the common facts, the metric tons of them, already in our grasp. But for faith. The mystery of unevidenced belief is, for Harris, nothing but a danger awaiting its occasion. Several years ago, a fire broke out at a school in Mecca. Because the female students there were known not to properly scarf their heads, religious police kept firemen from the building. Fourteen young women died. So patent a horror, Harris argues, cannot be the work of evil, or of the much-discussed humiliation of Islam. It is, instead, the fruit of simple ignorance, a gross misestimation of the nature of our human needs. Harris, in rebuke, calls his book The End of Faith.

The reader is unsure at first if Harris wants to make a case or merely file for one. Save for its beguiling close, in which Buddhism and brain science are worked into secular equivalents of faith, the book is a wedge of invective marbled with disdain. Predictably, certain passages appear gratuitious. The contents of one chapter, a grisly waxwork of religious crimes, are largely available (with pictures) from a World Book encyclopedia. In the commentary on Islam that follows, Harris makes up for what appears to be inexpertise by drubbing us with pages of citations from the (evidently barbarous) Koran. Whatever license we extend him here, on what for some of us is foreign ground, we may wish to rescind upon a vetting of his Bible scholarship. You may have gotten wind of this, but the good book is in fact a pretty rough draft. Among its elementary mistakes — wet papyrus? tricky Greek? — it appears that Jesus Christ both is and is not the same as God. Whoops! Harris knows how to press the advantage: “There is, perhaps, no greater evidence for the imperfection of the Bible as an account of reality, divine or mundane, than such instances of self-refutation.” It looks like a technical knockout, of course, and readers safely ignorant of Christian thought — of, say, “the Trinity” — are sure to score it that way.

Harris fares better in his analysis of politics, though his views here — centrally, that “men like bin Laden actually believe what they say they believe” — merit attention not for their novelty so much as for their membership in present trends. Christopher Hitchens and the writers at The New Republic have argued for some time that fundamentalism must be taken at its word. Scholars across the social sciences, in fact, seem more willing than ever to take the self-reports of human beings in earnest. New work on the crusades, The New Yorker has recently observed, relaxes the determinism of older economic models and gives greater rein to the role of ideology — that is, of faith — in the reconstruction of the past. Jared Diamond’s latest book, in which the failure of a Viking colony turns upon the settlers’ proud refusal to eat fish, displays a sympathetic attitude.

The stakes of such a shift are more than academic. Confronted with the findings of skeptical inquiry, many on the left have come to think of massive self-deception as perhaps the human norm. Freud can still persuade us of the ways we fail to know ourselves. For Marx, entire classes could be swindled by a myth. And who today denies the neural stealth of prejudice? Our doubts, of course, can reach to comical extremes. An old joke reports the pillow talk of two behaviorists: “It was great for you,” says one. “How was it for me?” But with so much reason for suspicion, it is no surprise that theorists and historians may have underplayed the causal power of belief. (Harris, his attention buried in the neuroscience, finds this fact a mystery. Perhaps a chapter on the history of ideas — ideas sounded recently in this review — would have proved germane.) As may be evident, the consequences of this recognition reach beyond the Middle East. Finding out what’s wrong with Kansas, or with Kerry, may call for something more than diagnosing hidden ills. It may begin, as at the recent exit polls, with asking Kansans what they actually believe.

Harris, however, has mostly done with questioning. One gets the sense that he has consulted few of those believers he terms “moderates.” This is a shame, since his conception of the place of moderatism in the churches of the modern world forms the innovation and the crux of The End of Faith. Here is Harris: “Religious moderates are, in large part, responsible for the religious conflict in our world, because their beliefs provide the context in which scriptural literalism and religious violence can never be adequately opposed.” This is strong talk, but caricature saps its grip. Moderates, for Harris, are distinguished in two ways: by their allegorical address of scripture and by their hallowing of tolerance. It is the latter view that he considers lethal, for tolerance entails “the equal validity of all faiths,” the view that “every human being should be free to believe whatever he wants about God.” Whatever he wants? Harris doesn’t even stuff this sack with the straw it holds. The very distinction between moderates and extremists, after all, assumes the incompatibility of their views. This assumption is made perfectly actual, moreover, in the schisms our contemporary churches face.

Harris’s exposé simply conflates the ecumenism of the living modern church with a relativism culled from books. For the moderate, religions are valid not as such, but insofar as they animate, like different settings of a song, a common sense of faith. (The fact that it is hard to say what such a sense involves ought not to make us think it is a phantom.) In the end, what worries Harris is that any sort of faith at all enables what is worst in faith — that any motel Bible can be read and taken at its word. But the critique of fundamentalism, like the wars on crime and drugs, must address the demand for bad ideas, not the simple fact of their supply. Stemming this demand requires broad and forceful conversation, and Harris is correct, of course, to wish for this. But this is no great social theorem. Debaters always close, appropriately, with calls for more debate.

Redundancy, however, is not this author’s problem. Harris handles a sharp pen, and logomachs will like to watch him fence with it. (The lively text, meanwhile, is weighted by a slab of endnotes that fellow heavies — Harris has studied philosophy — will enjoy.) If in the end the book fails to find its audience, however, it may be that it does not have one. Harris jokes in an interview that the dedication is mordantly precise: the book may be for his mother. “She, at least, agrees with me.” It is a telling quip. Too often in this most public of arguments we gain an awkward sense of intimacy, as if the author were entertaining friends, or maybe just himself. A labored spoof in which Harris fakes the gnostic exegesis of a recipe for grilled fish twists for pages in the endnotes. We catch him elsewhere musing on the “massive waste of time” it is to build a church or say a prayer. “How many hours of human labor will be devoured, today,” he wonders, “by an imaginary God?” By this calculation, of course, a great many human pastimes will deserve to meet their “ends.” Perhaps Harris has plans for a series of such books.

But the puzzle of The End of Faith is much deeper than its author’s shifting moods. While it may be first mistaken for a book produced in anger, an anger that the reader can at least expect to share, it is in fact the yield of something closer to disgust. Though you may chuckle once on learning that an observant Hindu’s beliefs are “fanciful as the names of Santa’s reindeer,” even thick-skinned unbelievers will begin to sour on the jokes. Most religion “shouldn’t survive elementary school”; Allah’s peers include “Batman,” “Zeus,” and “unicorns.” The abuse is methodical. When a fellow writer warns of the “sneering tone” endemic in the liberal critique of faith, Harris spits straight back: any respect for unjustified belief amounts to “reason in ruins.” It is difficult to trace all of this bile back to its source in one man’s gut. But even fellow infidels will be led to try, and then to ask: What is there in the way Sam Harris views the world that occasions such disdain?

Consider an empiricist: free of all assumptions, slate wiped blank. What should he believe? People seem to reach agreement most at times when they can stand and point at things. The cup is on the table. The bowl is on the mantle. Is there a God in heaven? The question sounds sensible, and the answer seems clear. But the empiricist has perhaps misheard it. A loving and all-knowing being is something very different than a cup. To say that God exists is perhaps, at the deepest level, to say nothing of an entity, a Batman or a Zeus. It is to advocate, rather, a certain way of looking at the world. The empiricist sees a world described by science: a jumbled scene of particles and forces. The theist, after Darwin, is confronted by the same mess. She sees it, though, as if its parts were undergirded by a purpose — as “Creation,” so to speak. Such a view, of course, is difficult to justify. It may seem wild to stand and point at something called God’s plan, and yet the theist is unable to survey the prospect of her life from any other point of view.

How rational is this? Suppose the search for clues to faith has been called off. Suppose that for the theist belief is now a naked premise, the scrim against which other facts take shape. To be taken seriously, of course, beliefs tend to require evidence, and so Harris sees believers as the victims of a cheap mistake. But faith, as we have seen, is not a typical belief. And readers to whom this matters may notice in the endnotes the following intriguing line. “A belief must be knitted together with other beliefs for it to be a belief about anything at all. (I have left aside, for the moment, whether there exist beliefs that do not rely upon any others to derive their meaning. Whether or not such atomic beliefs exist, it is clear that most of our beliefs are not of this sort.)” Most of them, but not all. And so it appears that one can study the brain and continue to love the Lord.

What else is faith, after all, but an undigested atom of belief? The discussion here clarifies the source of all the endless Batman gags. As Harris notes, a belief that does not depend on any others, on any evidence, cannot be “about” anything. This will be a problem for believers who conceive of god on the model of a man, for their belief will then concern (or be “about”) his height and weight and beard. If faith, instead, is something like a view of the world, the frame in which experience first appears as the meaningful thing it is, then the problem of its content does not arise. What, in any case, could a frame or viewpoint be “about”? The failure to consider this species of belief, a position known sometimes as “fideism,” is the failure that unmakes The End of Faith. Though intelligent and candid moderates continue to aver belief in god, Harris can imagine nothing but a strongman in a cape.

Stridency of tone can bend a reader’s ear the other way, and I was regularly surprised to find myself defending views not usually my own. Inevitably, perhaps, it will strike the reader that Harris has exchanged one form of dogmatism for another. And though this impression should be resisted — seminar machismo is a far cry from Sharia — it is worth asking whether he, or anyone, can remain completely free of untested beliefs. Suppose that having a point of view is like speaking a language: empiricists will have assumptions, then, like Nebraskans have accents. Whether this is always the case is a question for philosophers. (Charles Taylor andAlasdair MacIntyre, both Catholic, have long argued that it is.) But it is certainly true of Harris, whose faith in science is marvelously strong. At present, he notes, the most we can say of bad people is that they are bad, but “this will almost certainly change.” “There will probably come a time when we achieve a detailed understanding of human happiness, and of ethical judgments themselves, at the level of the brain.” If in reading this you feel you’ve hit your head on something hard, it may just be an atom of belief.

Ben Rutter lives in Brooklyn.