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A Review of

Sam Harris' The End of Faith Part III 

May 11, 2007, Wausau, Wi— I ended part II of my review of Sam Harris’ The End Of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason.  , by pointing out that the view of religion which Harris was refuting was entirely artificial and that it did not represent any actual religion, much less Christianity.  It was also on display in his fundamental belief that religion is at the root of most wars, a false claim we exposed in Part I. 

In fact,  it would seem according to Harris, that while virtually any evil attributed any religious group can be taken as an example of the core problem with religion in general, nothing good done by any religious group can be legitimately  used to counter this.  In fact he says “Religious moderation is the product of secular knowledge and scriptural ignorance and has no bona fides, in religious terms, to put it on par with fundamentalism.” (p 21).  Fundamentalism, for Harris being the use of violent against those who disagree.  In short, this boils down to if it is bad, it is the result of religion, if it is good, it is the result of something else. In Harris’ world view this something else is often the use of reason, which he sees as the alternative to religion.

It is hard to take such simplistic Black and White thinking seriously; especially when it is being cloaked in the guise of reason and runs so contrary to the evidence.  The problem with Harris’ approach can be seen in the following passage when he writes, “The only reason anyone is ‘moderate’ in matters of faith these days is that he has assimilated some of the fruits of the last two thousand years of human thought (democratic politics, scientific advancement on every front, concern for human rights and end to cultural and geographic isolation, etc). “ (p 19)

What makes this claim so strange from Harris’ point of view is that this period when religious moderates were doing this assimilation is the Christian era.  Now we must be careful not to fall into the opposite error of Harris and assume that everything good during this period resulted from Christianity and everything bad resulted from something else. The record is much more mixed.  But as I argue in my book Christianity and Secularism,  any objective look at the historical evidence will show that Christianity has on the whole been a very positive force.

For example, the claim of earlier historians that Christianity caused the downfall of Rome, is now rejected by most. In fact the secular historian Will Durant argues that Christianity played an important role in preserving the culture from the onslaught of barbarism. The church maintained order as civilization crumbled around it.  He goes on point out that as Rome fell leaving the Church to fill the vacuum,  for the first time in European history, “the teachers of mankind preached an ethic of kindliness, obedience, humility, patience, mercy, purity, chastity, and tenderness.”  (cited in Christianity and Secularism, pp 100-101)

Again as I document in my book, the earlier view that the Church took civilization into the Dark Ages, and it was only when people began to break free of the Church’s hold that we had the Renaissance is a distorted view of history that is no longer accepted by historians.  Even in areas where the church clearly did great evil such as the inquisition, things are not quite so clear cut as Harris would have us believe. According to Harris, the Inquisition resulted because “the medieval church was quick” to follow the “Good Book.” (p 81) Yet reality is not quite so simple. In the eleventh century, Pope Leo IX held that maximum penalty for heresy was excommunication.  Then came the early parts of the renaissance and a revival of Roman Law that started in the city of Bologna in the 12th century. It was from the Roman legal concept of an inquisiti, that the Church developed Inquisition.

Much of the same can be said for the items in Harris list of thing moderates supposedly assimilated.  Many have noted that science grew out of the Christian world view with most early scientists being Christians.  As for the concern for Human Right, the whole concept of human rights was born out of the idea that we are created in the image of God with certain abilities given by God, and that what God has given, no man, not even the King is in a position arbitrarily take away. This religious foundation can be seen in the Declaration of Independence when it says “All men are created equal, endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights.”   It is no coincidence that the recent attempts to remove God as a foundation for rights have thrown the whole concept into turmoil, as no other suitable foundation has yet been found.

Given Harris’ view that sees only bad in religion, and tries to attribute any good to some other sources, it is no wonder he reaches the conclusions that he does. But such an irrational approach cannot be the foundation for a claim that is trying to contrast religion and reason. 

Part I     Part II   Part IV   Part V    Part VI

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