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books miscellaneous

90 second book review: The End of Faith

I’ve been stuck on this review for a while, but we are leaving tomorrow for a mini vacation to New Hampshire, so I decided to just get down what’s in my head and check it off the list.  It’s not going to get any better with time – at least for now.  One the plus side I am actually completing this review before I have completed the book I picked up after i (Sapiens…although I do only have 17 pages left, which I intend to get through as soon as I hit publish on this post ;-)).  And I did actually read another book after it which I am not going to do a review of since it was for fun.  I am getting closer to getting these done as I finish the books and before I start the next one.  But still not quite there.  Maybe they’re better with a little time?  I heard somewhere that the real reading happens when the eyes are off the page anyway,
The subject of this review is End of Faith by Sam Harris.  I first heard of Sam Harris on an interview he did on the Joe Rogan podcast.  I put him in the same mental bucket as I had Daniel Siegel in: scientists who have a thing or two to say about the reality behind mindfulness and meditation.  Mr. Harris (had to look up whether it was Dr…couldn’t find anything that said so in a quick search, so my apologies if I missed it) certainly does have some interesting things to say about those topics, but he has a lot more to say about a few other topics.   After subscribing to his (fairly recent) podcast and listening / watching a few of his youtube videos, I discovered that Mr. Harris is considered to be one of the leading voices of the modern atheist movement.  While not an atheist myself, I must admit I was captivated by someone who had such interesting things to say about the mind, present moment awareness and even spirituality, yet was also an atheist.
So it was that when on a trip to Half Price Books that I saw End of Faith in the Philosophy section, I had to buy it.  I was done in about 10 days, but that was more than 3 weeks ago.  I’m still not quite sure what I think about what he had to say in this book.  I picked it up with the idea (he would say intention) that I would disagree with most of what he had to say.  And there are some wide disagreements.  But there is also a lot that he has to say that I can’t find any holes in.
That being said, I’m still not sure that it was a book that I enjoyed.  I am not the most well read person with the largest vocabulary.  But I would consider myself in the top 25% or so.  Inflated self image or not, I found it a struggle to decrypt some of his sentences.  The phrasing and vocabulary was so complex, verging on obtuse, that I wasn’t quite sure what he meant sometimes.  This is more likely a commentary on my own mental abilities rather than his, but it did get in the way of my complete understanding of what he was trying to say.
One of the most surprising outcomes from reading The End of Faith is the amount of sympathy I developed for Mr. Harris.  I can imagine that he must find it difficult to fit in with most mainstream labels (left/right, conservative/liberal) based on his viewpoints on things like religion, immigration, the role of the state and even gun control.  I may be projecting, but I have some of the same issues – having to pick and choose what topics are OK and which are out of bounds depending on who I am talking to.  I am even more sensitive to this after reading Haidt’s book.
He covers a variety of different topics in the book, but one that has gained it (and perhaps him) the most notoriety is the screed against Islam.  I agree with one of his main points here: the intersection of relatively easily available planet destroying weapons and a faith that is OK with destroying the planet (at least a portion of it…the faith…not the planet) is unprecedented and calls us to do more than live and let live when it comes to matters of belief.  After that we part ways on the topic of Islam.
One point he tries to make a few times is that Islam today is just like Christianity was in the 14th century.  However, for some unstated reason, he claims that Islam will not be able to go through a similar moderation / transformation as Christianity.  It could be that he believes that some radical Islamist will prove that Sagan’s idea about Fermi paradox was right, but I didn’t see this plainly presented.
Even more egregious is his overwhelming….faith….in the the state.  For a man that claims to be an atheist, he seems to exhibit many of the behaviors of a state worshiper.  His solution to the Islamist problem seems to be to bomb them out of existence.  This flys counter to his self described rationalism since that’s exactly what we have been doing in the past few decades and to what effect?  ISIS is far worse in simple terms of human suffering than Saddam’s Royal Guard ever was.  My understanding of the rationalist approach is to take in real data now and again to update your rational model of the way the world should work, but perhaps that is reserved to the empiricist subset of the rationalists?  Mr. Harris goes so far as to not only call for increased violence to end the threat of future violence, but also denies that past violence has done anything to escalate the present violence.  It boggles the mind.  My mind anyway.
If not by violence, what will “save” us from the threat represented (in Mr. Harris’ mind anyway) by Islam?  It has to be the through better ideas.  If Islam is to moderate and follow the same path that 14th century Christianity did, it has to be through the marketplace of ideas.  This will not be a fast or an easy process, but its the only one that will work.
One claim that I have heard Mr. Harris make in a few different venues is that intentions matter.  I agree with this whole heartedly.  Setting an intention and making it real matters.  But the results of your intentions matter as much if not more.  This isn’t to say that you can’t make mistakes when trying to make your intentions real in the world.  Making mistakes is part of learning.  Making the same mistakes over and over again is incompetence or malice.  Perhaps he’s never heard that the “road to hell is paved with good intentions.”  On second thought, he probably has…he just doesn’t think there is such a place.

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