HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

June 25, 2007
Clap Your Hands and Say Thank you, Mister Jesus!

John R. Guthrie


On Sam Harris’s The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason


The End of Faith constitutes a valuable public conversation in that it says much that needs to be said. The style is clear and lucid, the work meticulously sourced.

Harris's primary theme involves the need to call the core doctrines of faith into question.
Ever the polemicist, he is particularly hard on Muslims, seeming to consider them essentially lost to reason. He states that, "Given what Muslims believe is genuine peace in this world possible? ...I'm afraid that encouraging answers to such questions are hard to come by (p. 137)." He provides copious Koranic quotes condemning the non-believer; quotes that are similar in their hatefulness to those found in Leviticus and Deuteronomy.

The misdeeds of murderous Muslim fanatics are well known. They are reprehensible and are and should be actionable. Yet human variability is too great to justify condemning a billion people en masse, no matter their religious persuasion. The Koranic claptrap Muslims espouse must eventually change. After all, Muslims, as Harris acknowledges, were making important contributions to humanity, particularly in the areas of math, astronomy and the preservation of ancient knowledge when Western Civilization was little more than a cesspool of theologically induced ignorance and brutality. Islamists may yet have their own enlightenment, particularly if significant numbers of them attain a sound education in a secular US or elsewhere.

Harris seems to insist in circumlocutions that are nothing if not artful that our depredations against Muslims are of little consequence. While anecdotal evidence is always suspect, I hope the reader will indulge me on the following: I’ve personally had opportunity through the years to interact with any of a number of Muslims. The ones who were patients of mine during my medical practice years impressed me as kind and humble people who suffered from the same physical illnesses and maladies of the heart as all the rest of us.

There was the Iranian Muslim couple; interesting people who were and are close friends, engaged with the world and fun to be around. I’ve also been fortunate to have highly educated Muslim friends in academic settings such as MIT who were Muslim.

I never had a Muslim accost me on the street and start enunciating bizarre mumbo jumbo about my need to be “washed in the blood of the Lamb,” to avoid eternal torture, a recurrent phenomena as I grew up in the theocracy of South Carolina and to a lesser degree elsewhere.
Even though I view some matters somewhat differently, Harris appears to be a perpetual student of the human condition, a thoughtful person who may see some of these issues differently with the passage of time. And then again I may.

With Laser-like accuracy Harris states that that "The degree to which religious ideas still determine (the) government policies...of the United States--presents a grave danger to everyone (p. 153)." Certainly Christians in the United States have much to atone for. As Harris notes, forty percent of George W. Bush's voter support came from fundamentalist Christians. Thus we have a president who describes himself as a "messenger" of God who is doing "the Lord's will." One might more readily expect a Grand Poobah of Pakistan or Nigeria to announce that God is whispering in his ear, an anomaly that almost moves even the rationalist to pray for regime change. One can reasonably argue then, that voters of the fundamentalist Christian persuasion more than any other group visited upon us the tragedy that is Iraq, with its millions dead or wounded and over four million people as refugees. War in the Middle East, after all, is enthusiastically embraced and encouraged by Christian Evangelicals to "usher in the Second Coming of Christ and the final destruction of the Jews (p. 153)." Our military is corrupted by what Air Force vet Mikey Weinstein terms "an evangelical coup in the military." The wall of separation between church and state that was so artfully constructed by the founders, them at most mildly affirmative deists, is tragically undermined. If that were not enough, we also now have deficit spending greater than any in the history of humanity (Just clap your hands and say thank you, Mister Jesus!).

Harris says "victimless crimes" are outgrowths of faith-based thinking, noting that prohibition and the Drug War began with Christian groups. With no victim, though, he states there is no crime. One appreciates then the implication that Harris supports the right of people to do that which they wish to do in private.

The total absence of magical thinking is likely to be a long time coming, though, and this is true whether it's that of a coven of nude witches dancing around a fire in a moonlit glade beseeching the Goddess or a gaggle of Southern Baptists insisting that those crumbled up saltine crackers are momentarily going to become the neurological, muscle and integumental tissues of their Sky Boy Jesus.

In the meantime, this reader is left feeling that society is served best by religious pluralism coupled with a high tolerance for harmless eccentricity, whether it be the Rev. Jimmy Swaggart's fevered rush to a hot sheets motel with an economy model sex worker or Rev. Ted Haggard and his catamite slathering on the K-Y Jelly in preparation for a convivial amphetamine-fueled boy-on-boy Bacchanal.

If there was any great lesson in the tragedy of 09.11.01, it is that religion and politics are an explosive and irresponsible combination, one that is eventually paid for in blood. With whatever small flaws it may have, "The End of Faith" makes a good case for this. It is a valuable and well-written work.


The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason by Sam Harris
W. W. Norton; Reprint edition (October 10, 2005); 224 pages
Click here to link to the book description at Amazon.com.


Dr. John R. Guthrie practiced family medicine in the Smokey Mountain foothills of Appalachia for years. As an adolescent he was a U.S. Marine infantry rifleman and later served as a physician in the U.S. Navy Reserve. He lives in Southern California and is a writer and social activist.


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