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A Review of
Sam Harris' The End of Faith Part VI
June 1, 2007, Wausau, Wi— I will conclude my review of Sam Harris’ The End Of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, by looking at the alternative that Harris presents. Harris fundamentally argues for a view of life that seeks happiness through the process of reason and evidence. In his attacks on religion, Harris is not arguing for secularism per se but for reason. This is how he attempts to avoid the charge that the greatest evils in human history ( the holocaust, the massacres in communist countries, of Russia, China, Cambodia, Vietnam, etc) have been the result of secular regimes not religious one. As we saw in part one Harris’ claim that religion is at the root of most conflicts in human history is false. Still religion has been responsible for evil. Yet secularism made up any gap and far surpassed religion in just one century.
Harris seeks to avoid this problem by claiming that the evils caused by secular governments were because of secular dogmas and thus similar to the religious dogmas he condemns. The problem is that while hindsight is always 20-20 and thus allows a small fig leaf to avoid such culpability, this is really no different than the Christian who tries to claim that those who did evil in the name of Christ are not really following the true teachings of Christ. Frankly, I think that Harris’ view is even worse off for at least the Christians can point to clear a foundation (the Bible) about which we can discuss. Harris has no foundation other than happiness, and no means to pursue clarifying what this means than science.
But the history of science is full of problem, wrong turns and downright errors. This is not really a criticism of science; this is just part of the nature of discovery. But it is hardly a firm basis for morality. For example Harris tries to lay the blame for the holocaust on religious anti-Semitism, ignoring the fact that many of Christianity’s strongest critics were extremely anti-Semitic showing that anti-Semitism is not simply an Christian or even religious phenomena. Still if the holocaust had been lead by Christians and had been limited to the six million Jews, Harris might have had a point. But 12 million died in the holocaust. What about the other six million others who died along with the six million Jews, or the fact that Hitler was not religious? While religious anti-Semitism sadly did play a role, it pales in regards to the role played by science and “reason.”
Both Fascism and Communism saw themselves as scientific alternatives to religion. In particular for the Holocaust there was the science of eugenics and others theories that trace themselves back to Darwin and the theory of evolution and its survival of the fittest. While justly rejected now, in the early part of the 20th century this was the “scientific” view of the day. Hitler did not seek to exterminate the Jews because of the false religious view that they were Christ-killers, but because of the false scientific view that they were inferior people who were corrupting the purity of master race. Harris rejects this view now as just another false “dogma” but that is the nice thing about hindsight, it is always 20-20. Someday I hope that the current ban on DDT will also be seen as a false dogma, but it is still in effect and still defended, and is resulting in the deaths of between one and two million people each year for a total in excess of 40 million people since it went into effect.
The key problem with Harris’ view is that his choice of happiness is both vague and subjective. For example, China argues that the group is more important than the individual, and thus individual rights can be superseded by the state as it seeks to better the whole. Someone else might see that acquisition of power as the key to their morality, or as Hitler, the building of a master race through selective breeding and the elimination of the mentally ill etc, to make the best people possible. Without an objective standard by which to measure, it would simple be a matter of personal preference which of these to choose. Nor would one be able to say, for example, that building of a master race was wrong and therefore not a valid option, as what is being chosen is the foundation for morality, that it, the basis by which we would decide was right and wrong. This is how those secular regimes in the 20th century were able to kill hundreds of millions of people, for as strange as it sounds they lived in a moral systems that said it was good.
While Christianity has nowhere near a perfect record, I believe that any objective review of the evidence would show that even with its faults and missteps, Christianity has been and continues to be a very positive force in human history. In the last 150 years since science has attempted to separate itself from religion and replace it as a guide for society, the results have often been disastrous. In effect Harris is asking us to abandon what has a proven track record, what has for example provided the intellectual and moral back ground for countries like the United States, and instead embrace what had never worked and when tried as lead to the greatest evils in history. Now that is a real leap of faith.
This is Elgin Hushbeck, asking you to Consider Christianity: a Faith Based on Fact.
See www.consider.org for additional information.
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