Harris (2004). The end of faith: Religion, terror, and the future of reason.

Harris, S. (2004). The end of faith: Religion, terror, and the future of reason. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

“The problem that religious moderation poses for all of us is that it does not permit anything very critical to be said about religious literalism. We cannot say that fundamentalists are crazy, because they are merely practicing their freedom of belief; we cannot even say that they are mistaken in religious terms, because their knowledge of scripture is generally unrivaled. All we can say, as religious moderates, is that we don’t like the personal and social costs that a full embrace of scripture imposes on us.” (p 20)

“Religious moderation is the product of secular knowledge and scriptural ignorance … . By their light, religious moderation appears to be nothing more than an unwillingness to fully submit to God’s law. By failing to live by the letter of the texts, while tolerating the irrationality of those who do, religious moderates betray faith and reason equally.” (p 21)

“The benignity of most religious moderates does not suggest that religious faith is anything more sublime than a desperate marriage of hope and ignorance, nor does it guarantee that there is not a terrible price to be paid for limiting the scope of reason in our dealings with other human beings.” (p 21)

“Religious faith represents so uncompromising a misuse of the power of our minds that it forms a kind of perverse, cultural singularity—a vanishing point beyond which rational discourse proves impossible. When foisted upon each generation anew, it renders us incapable of realizing just how much of our world has been unnecessarily ceded to a dark and barbarous past.” (p 25)

“Imagine a world in which generations of human beings come to believe that certain films were made by God or that specific software was coded by him. Imagine a future in which millions of our descendants murder each other over rival interpretations of Star Wars or Windows 98. Could anything—anything—be more ridiculous? And yet, this would be no more ridiculous than the world we are living in.” (p 35-36)

“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.” (p 45)

“… the very tenets of their faith have immunized them against the power of conversation. Believing strongly, without evidence, they have kicked themselves loose of the world. It is therefore in the very nature of faith to serve as an impediment to further inquiry. ” (p 45-46)

“It is a truism to say that people of faith have created almost everything of value in our world, because nearly every person who has ever swung a hammer or trimmed a sail has been a devout member of one or another religious culture. There has been simply no one else to do the job. We can also say that every human achievement prior to the twentieth century was accomplished by men and women who were perfectly ignorant of the molecular basis of life. Does this suggest that a nineteenth-century view of biology would have been worth maintaining?” (p 108-109)

“If, as I contend throughout this book, all that is good in religion can be had elsewhere — if, for instance, ethical and spiritual experience can be cultivated and talked about without our claiming to know things we manifestly do not know — then all the rest of our religious activity represents, at best, a massive waste of time and energy. Think of all the good things human beings will not do in this world tomorrow because they believe that their most pressing task is to build another church or mosque, or to enforce some ancient dietary practice, or to print volumes upon volumes of exegesis on the disordered thinking of ignorant men. How many hours of human labor will be devoured, today, by an imaginary God? Think of it: if a computer virus shuts down a nation’s phone system for five minutes, the loss in human productivity is measured in billions of dollars. Religious faith has crashed our lines daily, for millennia. I’m not suggesting that the value of every human action should be measured in terms of productivity. Indeed, much of what we do would wither under such an analysis. But we should still recognize what a fathomless sink for human resources (both financial and attentional) organized religion is.” (p 149)

“… faith has grown rather tame in the West — and this is undoubtedly a good thing — … it still has very long claws. As we will see in the next chapter, even the most docile forms of Christianity currently present insuperable obstacles to AIDS prevention and family planning in the developing world, to medical research, and to the development of a rational drug policy — and these contributions to human misery alone constitute some of the most appalling failures of reasonableness in any age.” (p 149-150)

“What constitutes a civil society? At minimum, it is a place where ideas, of all kinds, can be criticized without the risk of physical violence. If you live in a land where certain things cannot be said about the king, or about an imaginary being, or about certain books, because such utterances carry the penalty of death, torture, or imprisonment, you do not live in a civil society.” (p 150)

“Surely there must come a time when we will acknowledge the obvious: theology is now little more than a branch of human ignorance. Indeed, it is ignorance with wings.” (p 173)

“Credit goes to Christopher Hitchens for distilling, in a single phrase, a principle of discourse that could well arrest our slide toward the abyss: ‘what can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.’ Let us pray that billions of us soon agree with him.” (p 176)

“Augustine, for instance, when considering the moral stature of virgins who had been raped by the Goths, wondered whether they had not been ‘unduly puffed up by [their] integrity, continence and chastity.’ Perhaps they suffered ‘some lurking infirmity which might have betrayed them into proud and contemptuous bearing, had they not been subjected to the humiliation that befell them.’ Perhaps, in other words, they deserved it.” (p 188)

“How can we encourage other human beings to extend their moral sympathies beyond a narrow locus? How can we learn to be mere human beings, shorn of any more compelling national, ethnic, or religious identity? We can be reasonable. It is in the very nature of reason to fuse cognitive and moral horizons. Reason is nothing less than the guardian of love.” (p 190)

“The connection between spirituality — the cultivation of happiness directly, through precise refinements of attention — and ethics is well attested. Certain attitudes and behaviors seem to be conducive to contemplative insight, while others are not.” (p 192)

“Ours is a world in which bombs must occasionally fall where such doubts are in short supply. Here we come upon a terrible facet of ethically asymmetric warfare: when your enemy has no scruples, your own scruples become another weapon in his hand.” (p 202)

“Most scientists consider themselves physicalists; this means, among other things, that they believe that our mental and spiritual lives are wholly dependent upon the workings of our brains. On this account, when the brain dies, the stream of our being must come to an end. Once the lamps of neural activity have been extinguished, there will be nothing left to survive. Indeed, many scientists purvey this conviction as though it were itself a special sacrament, conferring intellectual integrity upon any man, woman, or child who is man enough to swallow it.” (p 208)

“The frontiers of the mental self are no easier to discern: memes, taboos, norms of decorum, linguistic conventions, prejudices, ideals, aesthetic biases, commercial jingles — the phenomena that populate the landscape of our minds are immigrants from the world at large.” (p 211)

“A kernel of truth lurks at the heart of religion, because spiritual experience, ethical behavior, and strong communities are essential for human happiness. And yet our religious traditions are intellectually defunct and politically ruinous. While spiritual experience is clearly a natural propensity of the human mind, we need not believe anything on insufficient evidence to actualize it.” (p 221)

“And yet, it is obvious that an utter revolution in our thinking could be accomplished in a single generation: if parents and teachers would merely give honest answers to the questions of every child.” (p 224)

“Religious violence is still with us because our religions are intrinsically hostile to one another. Where they appear otherwise, it is because secular knowledge and secular interests are restraining the most lethal improprieties of faith. It is time we acknowledged that no real foundation exists within the canons of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, or any of our other faiths for religious tolerance and religious diversity.” (p 225)

“People who harbor strong convictions without evidence belong at the margins of our societies, not in our halls of power. The only thing we should respect in a person’s faith is his desire for a better life in this world; we need never have respected his certainty that one awaits him in the next.”  (p 225)

“… but we know enough to rule out many false understandings. Indeed, we know enough at this moment to say that the God of Abraham is not only unworthy of the immensity of creation; he is unworthy even of man.” (p 226)


“Questions of their plausibility aside, the mutual incompatibility of our religious beliefs renders them suspect in principle. As Bertrand Russell observed, even if we were to grant that one of our religions must be correct in its every particular, given the number of conflicting views on offer, every believer should expect damnation on mere probabilistic grounds.” (p 233)

“You see the man’s face, recognize it, and therefore ‘believe’ that you know who this person is. Activity in your fusiform cortex, especially in the right hemisphere, is crucial for such recognition to occur, and a lesion here will lead to prosopagnosia (the inability to recognize familiar faces, or indeed to see faces as faces at all). Using ‘belief’ in this context, it is tempting to say that prosopagnosics have lost certain ‘beliefs’ about what other people look like.” (p 234)

“The horror of Sept. 11 should motivate us, not because it provides us with a grievance that we now must avenge, but because it proves beyond any possibility of doubt that certain twenty-first-century Muslims actually believe the most dangerous and implausible tenets of their faith.” (p 236)

“Thomas Nagel, an eloquent opponent of pragmatism, offers us, in The Last Word (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1997), 30, three propositions that he feels can be adequately accounted for only by realism: 1. There are many truths about the world that we will never know and have no way of finding out. 2. Some of our beliefs are false and will never be discovered to be so. 3. If a belief is true, it would be true even if no one believed it.” (p 269)

“There may, in fact, be no ethical justification for all of us fortunate people to carry on with our business while other people starve … It may be that a clear view of the matter — that is, a clear view of the dynamics of our own happiness — would oblige us to work tirelessly to alleviate the hunger of every last stranger as though it were our own. On this account, how could one go to the movies and remain ethical? One couldn’t. One would simply be taking a vacation from one’s ethics.” (p 276)

“In conventional terms, however, there is a rather large difference between taking a drug and taking on a new idea. That both have the power to alter our perception is one of the more fascinating facts about the human mind.” (p 278)

Selected references

  • Diamond, J. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. New York: W. W Norton, 1997.
  • Kurzweil, R. The Age of Spiritual Machines. New York: Penguin, 1999.


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