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American writer Michael Mewshaw generously recalls Gore Vidal and his tumultuous times.
The End of Faith
By Sam Harris
Norton, 2004. 348 pages
In a publishing universe saturated with an onslaught of books arguing vociferously both for and against religion, Harris's view stands out because it rails not just against God, but against faith itself. And not only against the faith of extremists, but that of religious moderates, who Harris snubs as unfaithful yet unwilling to abandon faith.
So-called moderates actually function, according to Harris, as padding for religious extremists, making the latter untouchable by the tenets of modern critical discourse. We live in a world where everything is debatable and deflatable except religious belief. Sam Harris asks why.
A belief, Harris argues, is "a lever that, once pulled, moves almost everything else in a person's life." Thus one who believes that 72 virgins await him in heaven if he murders a bunch of Israelis in a pizzeria is propelled by his belief to do what for a skeptic in his position would be unthinkable. Harris follows this logic to its natural conclusion, outlining many of the familiar proofs along the way: the inconsistency of scripture with itself, the incompatibility of "revealed religions" with each other in an increasingly volatile world, the societal evolution of morality and the pursuit of happiness as humankind's ultimate goal.
Harris lets nobody off the hook, except perhaps the Jain, as they are extremists only in non-violent tendencies. Christianity and Islam are the primary culprits, as both are religions based on revelation, ultimate truth and the promise of heaven (and hell). Judaism receives a lighter treatment, partially due to its historical inability to inflict much damage on its self-declared taskmasters.
The writing throughout is precise, the book is well-sourced and the arguments are convincing. The last chapter examines whether spiritual experiences are attainable in ways divorced from dogma. Hint: read the footnotes.
Reviewed by Marc Alan Di Martino