In Association with The Jesus Puzzle web site:
Earl Doherty

Age of Reason Publications

Dedicated to attaining an Age of Reason in the application
of rational thought to society’s laws, ethics and beliefs,

and to entering upon an age of reason in our individual lives.

Religion and Rationality - Religion and Rationality - Religion and Rationality - Religion and Rationality

Age of Reason Home Page

A review of Sam Harris'
"The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason"
(August 28, 2005)

     Religion in one form or another has been with us for tens of thousands of years, ever since humanity began to be overwhelmed by awareness of the unknown. For all of its life it has been based on ignorance, fear, superstition and pure wishful thinking. Social and scientific progress has largely been accomplished in spite of it. But in the opening years of the 21st century it has reached a kind of critical mass which makes it a danger not only to further progress but to our very survival. Islamic terrorism has come into its own, and may well be in sight of getting hold of nuclear weapons; in the hands of those who are willing and eager to die in the cause of destroying the infidel and establishing an Islamic world state, they threaten the survival of civilization, for all-out war and catastrophe would certainly result.  But Islam is not the only threat. Christian fundamentalism in the United States is also reaching a critical mass. It threatens to destroy two centuries of enlightened democratic government, halt social and scientific progress, and rend American society in the cause of establishing a regressive Bible-based fascism. Its policies will be governed by the Book of Revelation, and its science and human rights will revert to a medieval state. It, too, has its audacious ambitions, envisioning world conquest for Christ and an apocalyptic upheaval accompanying his return. When two such forces are let loose in the modern world, each with its own fanatical convictions and irrational bases, mutually exclusive and incapable of reason and accommodation, we are all in very deep trouble.

     This recognition of crisis prompted Sam Harris to write The End of Faith, and a powerful piece of writing it is. The book is a courageous analysis of what religion is based on, what it has produced and what it threatens to produce in the near future. None of it is pretty. While Harris offers no easy or magical solution, an awareness and fearless examination of the problem would put us halfway there, and one can only hope that books like this will eventually lead us to that halfway point. But The End of Faith is more than just an indictment. In analysing why the pitfalls of the human condition have brought us to these destructive and perilous straits, Harris gives us much in the way of understanding, and perhaps even a sense of how we can escape our own traps. The cover design of the hardcover edition, behind the author and title words, conveys a hopeful, if mixed, message. It is almost entirely black, with a sliver of light off in the distance entering a short way into the blackness, like a beckoning open doorway at the end of a dark narrow hall. There is a way out, but can it be reached? And can it be reached in time?

     I am not going to say too much by way of analysis, but mostly let Harris speak for himself. He is a brilliant writer, a master of vocabulary and imagery, with a very fresh and readable style. The book is a page turner, though the disturbing subject matter prevents it from being what one would call an enjoyable read. Yet the latter part of the book manages to lift our spirits. Certainly, its insights into the nature of ethics and consciousness open up new vistas and new hope. Perhaps the 'end of faith' lies not too far in our future, simply because we face disaster if we do not recognize that the irrationalities of religion have brought our species to a tipping point. Our choice is either their abandonment or the abyss.

From Chapter One: Reason in Exile

Our situation is this: most of the people in this world believe that the Creator of the universe has written a book. We have the misfortune of having many such books on hand, each making an exclusive claim as to its infallibility. People tend to organize themselves into factions according to which of these incompatible claims they acceptrather than on the basis of language, skin color, location of birth, or any other criterion of tribalism. Each of these texts urges its readers to adopt a variety of beliefs and practices, some of which are benign, many of which are not. All are in perverse agreement on one point of fundamental importance, however: "respect" for other faiths, or for the views of unbelievers, is not an attitude that God endorses. While all faiths have been touched, here and there, by the spirit of ecumenicalism, the central tenet of every religious tradition is that all others are mere repositories of error or, at best, dangerously incomplete. Intolerance is thus intrinsic to every creed. Once a person believesreally believesthat certain ideas can lead to eternal happiness, or to its antithesis, he cannot tolerate the possibility that the people he loves might be led astray by the blandishments of unbelievers. Certainty about the next life is simply incompatible with tolerance in this one. [p.13]

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, an end to cultural and geographic isolation, etc.). The doors leading out of scriptural literalism do not open from the inside. The moderation we see among non-fundamentalists is not some sign that faith itself has evolved; it is, rather, the product of the many hammer blows of modernity that have exposed certain tenets of faith to doubt. Not the least among these developments has been the emergence of our tendency to value evidence and to be convinced by a proposition to the degree that there is evidence for it. Even most fundamentalists live by the lights of reason in this regard; it is just that their minds seem to have been partitioned to accommodate the profligate truth claims of their faith....Religious moderation springs from the fact that even the least educated person among us simply knows more about certain matters than anyone did two thousand years agoand much of this knowledge is incompatible with scripture. [p.18-19]

With each passing year, do our religious beliefs conserve more and more of the data of human experience? If religion addresses a genuine sphere of understanding and human necessity, then it should be susceptible to progress; its doctrines should become more useful, rather than less. Progress in religion, as in other fields, would have to be a matter of present inquiry, not the mere reiteration of past doctrine. Whatever is true now should be discoverable now, and describable in terms that are not an outright affront to the rest of what we know about the world. By this measure, the entire project of religion seems perfectly backward. It cannot survive the changes that have come over usculturally, technologically, and even ethically. Otherwise, there are few reasons to believe that we will survive it. [p.22]

The point is that most of what we currently hold sacred is not sacred for any reason other than that it was thought sacred yesterday. Surely, if we could create the world anew, the practice of organizing our lives around untestable propositions found in ancient literatureto say nothing of killing and dying for themwould be impossible to justify. What stops us from finding it impossible now? [p.24]

Our world is fast succumbing to the activities of men and women who would stake the future of our species on beliefs that should not survive an elementary school education. That so many of us are still dying on account of ancient myths is as bewildering as it is horrible, and our own attachment to these myths, whether moderate or extreme, has kept us silent in the face of developments that could ultimately destroy us....Give people divergent, irreconcilable, and untestable notions about what happens after death, and then oblige them to live together with limited resources. The result is just what we see: an unending cycle of murder and cease-fire. If history reveals any categorical truth, it is that an insufficient taste for evidence regularly brings out the worst in us. Add weapons of mass destruction to this diabolical clockwork, and you have found a recipe for the fall of civilization. [p.25-26]

What can be said of the nuclear brinkmanship between India and Pakistan if their divergent religious beliefs are to be "respected"? There is nothing for religious pluralists to criticize but each country's poor diplomacy
—while, in truth, the entire conflict is born of an irrational embrace of myth. Over one million people died in the orgy of religious killing that attended the partitioning of India and Pakistan. The two countries have since fought three official wars, suffered a continuous bloodletting at their shared border, and are now poised to exterminate one another with nuclear weapons simply because they disagree about "facts" that are every bit as fanciful as the names of Santa's reindeer. And their discourse is such that they are capable of mustering a suicidal level of enthusiasm for these subjects without evidence. Their conflict is only nominally about land, because their incompatible claims upon the territory of Kashmir are a direct consequence of their religious differences. Indeed, the only reason India and Pakistan are different countries is that the beliefs of Islam cannot be reconciled with those of Hinduism....When will we realize that the concessions we have made to faith in our political discourse have prevented us from even speaking about, much less uprooting, the most prolific source of violence in our history? [p.26-27]

From Chapter Two: The Nature of Belief

Let's say that I believe that God exists, and some impertinent person asks me why. This question invitesindeed, demandsan answer of the form "I believe that God exists because..." I cannot say, however, "I believe that God exists because it is prudent to do so" (as Pascal would have us do)....Nor can I say things like "I believe in God because it makes me feel good." The fact that I would feel good if there were a God does not give me the slightest reason to believe that one exists. This is easily seen when we swap the existence of God for some other consoling proposition. Let's say that I want to believe that there is a diamond buried somewhere in my yard that is the size of a refrigerator. It is true that it would be uncommonly good to believe this. But do I have any reason to believe that there is actually a diamond in my yard that is thousands of times larger than any yet discovered? No. Here we can see why Pascal's wager, Kierkegaard's leap of faith, and other epistemological ponzi schemes won't do. [p.62-63]

This demonstrates that faith is nothing more than a willingness to await the evidencebe it the Day of Judgment or some other downpour of corroboration. It is the search for knowledge on the installment plan: believe now, live an untestable hypothesis until your dying day, and you will discover that you were right. But in any other sphere of life, a belief is a check that everyone insists upon cashing this side of the grave: the engineer says the bridge will hold; the doctor says the infection is resistant to penicillinthese people have defensible reasons for their claims about the way the world is. The mullah, the priest, and the rabbi do not. Nothing could change about this world, or about the world of their experience, that would demonstrate the falsity of many of their core beliefs. This proves that these beliefs are not born of any examination of the world, or of the world of their experience. (They are, in Karl Popper's sense, "unfalsifiable.") It appears that even the Holocaust did not lead most Jews to doubt the existence of an omnipotent and benevolent God. If having half of your people systematically delivered to the furnace does not count as evidence against the notion that an all-powerful God is looking out for your interests, it seems reasonable to assume that nothing could. How does the mullah know that the Koran is the verbatim word of God? The only answer to be given in any language that does not make a mockery of the word "know" ishe doesn't. [p.66-67]

It takes a certain kind of person to believe what no one else believes. To be ruled by ideas for which you have no evidence (and which therefore cannot be justified in conversation with other human beings) is generally a sign that something is seriously wrong with your mind. Clearly there is sanity in numbers....Jesus Christwho, as it turns out, was born of a virgin, cheated death, and rose bodily into the heavenscan now be eaten in the form of a cracker. A few Latin words spoken over your favorite Burgundy, and you can drink his blood as well. Is there any doubt that a lone subscriber to these beliefs would be considered mad? Rather, is there any doubt that he would be mad? The danger of religious faith is that it allows otherwise normal human beings to reap the fruits of madness and consider them holy. Because each new generation of children is taught that religious propositions need not be justified in the way that all others must, civilization is still besieged by the armies of the preposterous. We are, even now, killing ourselves over ancient literature. Who would have thought something so tragically absurd could be possible? [p.72-73]

From Chapter Three: In the Shadow of God

The Holy Inquisition formally began in 1184 under Pope Lucius III, to crush the popular movement of Catharism....There seems, in fact, to have been nothing wrong with these people apart from their attachment to certain unorthodox beliefs about the creation of the world. But heresy is heresy. Any person who believes that the Bible contains the infallible word of God will understand why these people had to be put to death....The question of how the church managed to transform Jesus' principal message of loving one's neighbor and turning the other cheek into a doctrine of murder and rapine seems to promise a harrowing mystery; but it is no mystery at all. Apart from the Bible's heterogeneity and outright self-contradiction, allowing it to justify diverse and irreconcilable aims, the culprit is clearly the doctrine of faith itself. Whenever a man imagines that he need only believe the truth of a proposition, without evidencethat unbelievers will go to hell, that Jews drink the blood of infantshe becomes capable of anything. [p.83/85]

With passage of the Nuremberg laws in 1935 the transformation of German anti-Semitism was complete. The Jews were to be considered a race, one that was inimical to a healthy Germany in principle....And it is here that we encounter the overt complicity of the church in the attempted murder of an entire people. German Catholics showed themselves remarkably acquiescent to a racist creed that was at cross-purposes with at least one of their core beliefs: for if baptism truly had the power to redeem, then Jewish converts should have been considered saved without residue in the eyes of the church. But, as we have seen, coherence in any system of beliefs is never perfect....But the truly sinister complicity of the church came in its willingness to open its genealogical records to the Nazis and thereby enable them to trace the extent of a person's Jewish ancestry....Goldhagen also reminds us that not a single German Catholic was excommunicated before, during, or after the war, "after committing crimes as great as any in human history." This is really an extraordinary fact. Throughout this period, the church continued to excommunicate theologians and scholars in droves for holding unorthodox views and to proscribe books by the hundreds, and yet not a single perpetrator of genocideof whom there were countless examplessucceeded in furrowing Pope Pius XII's censorious brow. [p.102-4]

From Chapter Four: The Problem with Islam

Of course, like every religion, Islam has had its moments. Muslim scholars invented algebra, translated the writings of Plato and Aristotle, and made important contributions to a variety of nascent sciences at a time when European Christians were luxuriating in the most abysmal ignorance. It was only through the Muslim conquest of Spain that classical Greek texts found their way into Latin translation and seeded the Renaissance in western Europe. Thousands of pages could be written cataloging facts of this sort for every religion, but to what end? Would it suggest that religious faith is good, or even benign? 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?...The fact that religious faith has left its mark on every aspect of our civilization is not an argument in its favor, nor can any particular faith be exonerated simply because certain of its adherents made foundational contributions to human culture. [p.108-9]

To convey the relentlessness with which unbelievers are vilified in the text of the Koran, I provide a long compilation of quotations below, in order of their appearance in the text. This is what the Creator of the universe apparently has on his mind... [There follows over five pages of direct quotes from the Koran, from God consigning unbelievers "to the Fire" to directives to "Slay them wherever you find them."] ...On almost every page, the Koran instructs observant Muslims to despise non-believers. On almost every page, it prepares the ground for religious conflict. The Koran's ambiguous prohibition against suicide
[the Koran contains a single ambiguous line, "Do not destroy yourselves" (4:29)]appears to be an utter non-issue. Surely there are Muslim jurists who might say that suicide bombing is contrary to the tenets of Islam (where are these jurists, by the way?) and that suicide bombers are therefore not martyrs but fresh denizens of hell. Such a minority opinion, if it exists, cannot change the fact that suicide bombings have been rationalized by much of the Muslim world (where they are called "sacred explosions')....The bottom line for the aspiring martyr seems to be this: as long as you are killing infidels or apostates "in defense of Islam," Allah doesn't care whether you kill yourself in the process or not. [p.117-124]

It should be of particular concern to us that the beliefs of Muslims pose a special problem for nuclear deterrence. There is little possibility of our having a cold war with an Islamist regime armed with long-range nuclear weapons. A cold war requires that the parties be mutually deterred by the threat of death. Notions of martyrdom and jihad run roughshod over the logic that allowed the United States and the Soviet Union to pass half a century perched, more or less stably, on the brink of Armageddon. What will we do if an Islamist regime, which grows dewy-eyed at the mere mention of paradise, ever acquires long-range nuclear weaponry? If history is any guide, we will not be sure about where the offending warheads are or what their state of readiness is, and so we will be unable to rely on targeted, conventional weapons to destroy them. In such a situation, the only thing likely to ensure our survival may be a nuclear first strike of our own. Needless to say, this would be an unthinkable crime
as it would kill tens of millions of innocent civilians in a single daybut it may be the only course of action available to us, given what Islamists believe. How would such an unconscionable act of self-defense be perceived by the rest of the Muslim world? It would likely be seen as the first incursion of a genocidal crusade. The horrible irony here is that seeing could make it so: this very perception could plunge us into a state of hot war with any Muslim state that had the capacity to pose a nuclear threat of its own. All of this is perfectly insane, of course: I have just described a plausible scenario in which much of the world's population could be annihilated on account of religious ideas that belong on the same shelf with Batman, the philosopher's stone, and unicorns. That it would be a horrible absurdity for so many of us to die for the sake of myth does not mean, however, that it could not happen. Indeed, given the immunity to all reasonable intrusions that faith enjoys in our discourse, a catastrophe of this sort seems increasingly likely. We must come to terms with the possibility that men who are every bit as zealous to die as the nineteen hijackers may one day get their hands on long-range nuclear weaponry. The Muslim world in particular must anticipate this possibility and find some way to prevent it. Given the steady proliferation of technology, it is safe to say that time is not on our side. [p.128-9]

From Chapter Five: West of Eden

The degree to which religious ideas still determine government policiesespecially those of the United Statespresents a grave danger to everyone....For many years U.S. policy in the Middle East has been shaped, at least in part, by the interests that fundamentalist Christians have in the future of a Jewish state. Christian "support for Israel" is, in fact, an example of religious cynicism so transcendental as to go almost unnoticed in our political discourse. Fundamentalist Christians support Israel because they believe that the final consolidation of Jewish power in the Holy Landspecifically, the rebuilding of Solomon's templewill usher in both the Second Coming of Christ and the final destruction of the Jews. Such smiling anticipations of genocide seem to have presided over the Jewish state from its first moments: the first international support for the Jewish return to Palestine, Britain's Balfour Declaration of 1917, was inspired, at least in part, by a conscious conformity to biblical prophecy. These intrusions of eschatology into modern politics suggest that the dangers of religious faith can scarcely be overstated. Millions of Christians and Muslims now organize their lives around prophetic traditions that will only find fulfillment once rivers of blood begin flowing from Jerusalem. [p.153-4]

Lieutenant General William G. Boykin was recently appointed deputy undersecretary of defense for intelligence at the Pentagon. A highly decorated Special Forces officer, he now sets policy with respect to the search for Osama bin Laden, Mullah Omar, and the rest of America's enemies in hiding. He is also, as it turns out, an ardent opponent of Satan. Analyzing a photograph of Mogadishu after the fateful routing of his forces there in 1993, Boykind remarked that certain shadows in the image revealed "the principalities of darkness...a demonic presence in that city that God revealed to me as the enemy." On the subject of the war on terror, he has asserted that our "enemy is a guy named Satan." While these remarks sparked some controversy in the media, most Americans probably took them in stride. After all, 65 percent of us are quite certain that Satan exists. [p.156-7]

Men eager to do the Lord's work have been elected to other branches of the federal government as well. The House majority leader, Tom DeLay, is given to profundities like "Only Christianity offers a way to live in response to the realities that we find in this world. Only Christianity." He claims to have gone into politics "to promote a Biblical worldview." Apparently feeling that it is impossible to say anything stupid while in the service of this worldview, he attributed the shootings at the Columbine High School in Colorado to the fact that our schools teach the theory of evolution. We might wonder how it is that pronouncements this floridly irrational do not lead to immediate censure and removal from office. [p.157]

From Chapter Six: A Science of Good and Evil

A rational approach to ethics becomes possible once we realize that questions of right and wrong are really questions about the happiness and suffering of sentient creatures. If we are in a position to affect the happiness or suffering of others, we have ethical responsibilities toward themand many of these responsibilities are so grave as to become matters of civil and criminal law. Taking happiness and suffering as our starting point, we can see that much of what people worry about under the guise of morality has nothing to do with the subject. It is time we realized that crimes without victims are like debts without creditors. They do not even exist. Any person who lies awake at night worrying about the private pleasures of other consenting adults has more than just too much time on his hands; he has some unjustifiable beliefs about the nature of right and wrong. [p.170-1]

The pervasive idea that religion is somehow the source of our deepest ethical intuitions is absurd. We no more get our sense that cruelty is wrong from the pages of the Bible than we get our sense that two plus two equals four from the pages of a textbook on mathematics.  Anyone who does not harbor some rudimentary sense that cruelty is wrong is unlikely to learn that it is by readingand, indeed, most scripture offers rather equivocal testimony to this fact in any case....Concern for others was not the invention of any prophet....We simply do not need religious ideas to motivate us to live ethical lives. Once we begin thinking seriously about happiness and suffering, we find that our religions traditions are no more reliable on questions of ethics than they have been on scientific questions generally. [p.172]

Rather than find real reasons for human solidarity, faith offers us a solidarity born of tribal and tribalizing fictions. As we have seen, religion is one of the great limiters of moral identity, since most believers differentiate themselves, in moral terms, from those who do not share their faith. No other ideology is so eloquent on the subject of what divides one moral community from another. Once a person accepts the premises upon which most religious identities are built, the withdrawal of his moral concern from those who do not share these premises follows quite naturally. Needless to say, the suffering of those who are destined for hell can never be as problematic as the suffering of the righteous. If certain people can't see the unique wisdom and sanctity of my religion, if their hearts are so beclouded by sin, what concern is it of mine if others mistreat them? They have been cursed by the very God who made the world and all things in it. Their search for happiness was simply doomed from the start. [p.176-7]

[M]any intellectuals tend to speak as though something in the last century of ratiocination in the West has placed all worldviews more or less on an equal footing. No one is ever really right about what he believes; he can only point to a community of peers who believe likewise. Suicide bombing isn't really wrong, in any absolute sense; it just seems so from the parochial perspective of Western culture. Throw a dash of Thomas Kuhn into this pot, and everyone can agree that we never really know how the world is, because each new generation of scientists reinvents the laws of nature to suit its taste. Convictions of this sort generally go by the name of "relativism," and they seem to offer a rationale for not saying anything too critical about the beliefs of others. But most forms of relativismincluding moral relativism, which seems especially well subscribedare nonsensical. And dangerously so. Some may think that it is immaterial whether we think the Nazis were really wrong in ethical terms, or whether we just don't like their style of life. It seems to me, however, that the belief that some worldviews really are better than others taps a different set of intellectual and moral resources. These are resources we will desperately need if we are to oppose, and ultimately unseat, the regnant ignorance and tribalism of our world. [p.178-9]

To treat others ethically is to act out of concern for their happiness and suffering....[W]e experience happiness and suffering ourselves; we encounter others in the world and recognize that they experience happiness and suffering as well; we soon discover that "love" is largely a matter of wishing that others experience happiness rather than suffering; and most of us come to feel that love is more conducive to happiness, both our own and that of others, than hate. There is a circle here that links us to one another: we each want to be happy; the social feeling of love is one of our greatest sources of happiness; and love entails that we be concerned for the happiness of others. We discover that we can be selfish together. [p.186-7]

Consider the practice of "honor killing" that persists throughout much of Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia. We live in a world in which women and girls are regularly murdered by their male relatives for perceived sexual indiscretionsranging from merely speaking to a man without permission to falling victim of rape. Coverage of these atrocities in the Western media generally refers to them as a "tribal" practice, although they almost invariably occur in a Muslim context. Whether we call the beliefs that inspire this behavior "tribal" or "religious" is immaterial; the problem is clearly a product of what men in these societies believe about shame and honor, about the role of women, and about female sexuality....In these parts of the world, a girl of any age who gets raped has brought shame upon her family. Luckily, this shame is not indelible and can be readily expunged with her blood....The girl either has her throat cut, or she is dowsed with gasoline and set on fire, or she is shot. The jail sentences for these men, if they are prosecuted at all, are invariably short. Many are considered heroes in their communities....Any culture that raises men and boys to kill unlucky girls, rather than comfort them, is a culture that has managed to retard the growth of love. Such societies, of course, regularly fail to teach their inhabitants many other thingslike how to read. Not learning how to read is not another style of literacy, and not learning to see others as ends in themselves is not another style of ethics. It is a failure of ethics. [p.187-190]

From Chapter Seven: Experiments in Consciousness

Inevitably, scientists treat consciousness as a mere attribute of certain large-brained animals. The problem, however, is that nothing about a brain, when surveyed as a physical system, declares it to be a bearer of that peculiar, interior dimension that each of us experiences as consciousness in his own case. Every paradigm that attempts to shed light upon the frontier between consciousness and unconsciousness, searching for the physical difference that makes the phenomenal one, relies upon subjective reports to signal that an experimental stimulus has been observed. [p.208]

Our spiritual possibilities will largely depend on what we are as selves. In physical terms, each of us is a system, locked in an uninterrupted exchange of matter and energy with the larger system of the earth. The life of your very cells is built upon a network of barter and exchange over which you can exercise only the crudest conscious influencein the form of deciding whether to hold your breath or take another slice of pizza out of the fridge. As a physical system, you are no more independent of nature at this moment than your liver is of the rest of your body. As a collection of self-regulating and continually dividing cells, you are also continuous with your genetic precursors: your parents, their parents, and backward through tens of millions of generationsat which point your ancestors begin looking less like men and women with bad teeth and more like pond scum. It is true enough to say that, in physical terms, you are little more than an eddy in a great river of life. [p.210]

The sense of self seems to be the product of the brain's representing its own acts of representation; its seeing of the world begets an image of a one who sees. It is important to realize that this feelingthe sense that each of us has of appropriating, rather than merely being, a sphere of experienceis not a necessary feature of consciousness. It is, after all, conceivable that a creature could form a representation of the world without forming a representation of itself in the world. And, indeed, many spiritual practitioners claim to experience the world in just this way, perfectly shorn of self. [p.222]

It is scarcely an exaggeration to say that the feeling that we call "I" is one of the most pervasive and salient features of human life: and its effects upon the world, as six billion "selves" pursue diverse and often incompatible ends, rivals those that can be ascribed to almost any other phenomenon in nature. Clearly, there is nothing optimalor even necessarily viableabout our present form of subjectivity. Almost every problem we have can be ascribed to the fact that human beings are utterly beguiled by their feelings of separateness. It would seem that a spirituality that undermined such dualism, through the mere contemplation of consciousness, could not help but improve our situation. Whether or not great numbers of human beings will ever be in a position to explore this terrain depends on how our discourse on religion proceeds. There is clearly no greater obstacle to a truly empirical approach to spiritual experience than our current beliefs about God. [p.214]

Mysticism is a rational enterprise. Religion is not. The mystic has recognized something about the nature of consciousness prior to thought, and this recognition is susceptible to rational discussion. The mystic has reasons for what he believes, and these reasons are empirical. The roiling mystery of the world can be analyzed with concepts (this is science), or it can be experienced free of concepts (this is mysticism). Religion is nothing more than bad concepts held in place of good ones for all time. It is the denial
at once full of hope and full of fearof the vastitude of human ignorance....While spiritual experience is clearly a natural propensity of the human mind, we need not believe anything on insufficient evidence to actualize it. Clearly, it must be possible to bring reason, spirituality, and ethics together in our thinking about the world. [p.221]

From the Epilogue

This world is simply ablaze with bad ideas. There are still places where people are put to death for imaginary crimes—like blasphemy—and where the totality of a child's education consists of his learning to recite from an ancient book of religious fiction. There are countries where women are denied almost every human liberty, except the liberty to breed. And yet, these same societies are quickly acquiring terrifying arsenals of advanced weaponry. If we cannot inspire the developing world, and the Muslim world in particular, to pursue ends that are compatible with a global civilization, then a dark future awaits all of us. [p.224-5]

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. If religious war is ever to become unthinkable for us, in the way that slavery and cannibalism seem poised to, it will be a matter of our having dispensed with the dogma of faith. If our tribalism is ever to give way to an extended moral identity, our religious beliefs can no longer be sheltered from the tides of genuine inquiry and genuine criticism. It is time we realized that to presume knowledge where one has only pious hope is a species of evil. Wherever conviction grows in inverse proportion to its justification, we have lost the very basis of human cooperation. Where we have reasons for what we believe, we have no need of faith; where we have no reasons, we have lost both our connection to the world and to one another. 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]

We are bound to one another. The fact that our ethical intuitions must, in some way, supervene upon our biology does not make ethical truths reducible to biological ones. We are the final judges of what is good, just as we remain the final judges of what is logical. And on neither front has our conversation with one another reached an end. There need be no scheme of rewards and punishments transcending this life to justify our moral intuitions or to render them effective in guiding our behavior in the world. The only angels we need invoke are those of our better nature: reason, honesty, and love. The only demons we must fear are those that lurk inside every human mind: ignorance, hatred, greed, and faith, which is surely the devil's masterpiece. [p.226]


These are but sprinklings of the intelligence and wisdom that fill this book. I spoke earlier about the "critical mass" that religion has reached in our modern world. But perhaps we are reaching another critical mass. The voice of reason has often been raised in many parts of the world, from the days of Socrates on. It has been largely the purview of individuals confronting the masses, met with censure, rejection and even murder. But because religious faith has now reached the point where it threatens to suffocate secular and scientific expression and indeed to annihilate us all, a more collective voice of reason may be about to emerge in response. Those individuals need to become a movement, raising a unified voice unafraid to speak out against the millstone that religion has become, dragging our planetary society into the mud of ignorance and superstition, overpopulation, divisiveness, hatred and death. In my Jesus Puzzle novel (
posted in its entirety on the Jesus Puzzle website), as part of the background plot, I portrayed the formation of a broadly based organization called the Age of Reason Foundation to openly combat religious irrationalities and promote science and reason in society. I am convinced that this is the sort of thing that is needed today. It will require courageous politicians, outspoken academics, plucky writers, broadcasters and filmmakers, as well as ordinary citizens game enough to champion reason in their own social circles. There are parts of the world where this would be extraordinarily difficult. In the United States of America, with its long traditions of democracy, free speech and an enlightened Constitution (now under siege), it should be as easy as standing up and saying "No more!"

Earl Doherty

Age of Reason Home Page

New Items