March 29, 2005

by Joe Sobran

     The world would be a better, safer place for 
everyone if we all gave up religion, which is all 
fanatical superstition. This is especially true of 
Christianity, which led to the Holocaust and sexual 
repression and stuff, and Islam, which produces 
terrorism. Judaism is also pretty bad in principle, but 
it hasn't done as much harm.

     Or so I'm informed by a new book by Sam Harris, THE 
(published by Norton). He studied philosophy at Stanford 
and is now working on a doctorate in neuroscience. He 
seems to support the War on Terror and he doesn't seem to 
care for Noam Chomsky.

     Harris calls hopefully for an "end of faith," but he 
doesn't really think it's going to happen in the near 
future. In fact he fears that "the end of civilization 
itself" may occur before we wise up about religion. And 
it will be religion that destroys us, of course.

     This is very much a young man's book, naively 
apocalyptic and urgently trying to save the world. Harris 
tells us he started writing it on September 12, 2001, 
which, you'll recall, followed shortly after 
September 11, 2001, and the reader gathers he hasn't 
calmed down yet. He finds atheism an exciting new idea, 
when of course by now it's rather quaint.

     Communism was an exciting new idea not so long ago 
-- atheistic, rational, "scientific," and all that -- but 
Harris hardly mentions it. Why not? If you're going to 
harp on the "lethal" potential of religion, you should 
spare a chapter for the lethal actuality of atheistic 
ideologies. But Harris is too preoccupied with the 
horrors of the Middle Ages to notice the horrors of more 
recent history. To read him, you'd think the popes had 
killed more people than Stalin.

     But Harris takes care of communism by dismissing it 
as "little more than a political religion." Well, if 
atheistic communism counts as a form of religion, 
religion doesn't stand much of a chance of winning this 
argument, does it? Nothing can shake Harris's own faith, 
which is that a world of atheists would be a lot more 
sane than the world as we know it. This belief can hardly 
claim to be empirically verified. The history of the 
twentieth century suggests otherwise.

     Naturally, the book comes warmly blurbed by the 
usual suspects -- the philosopher Peter Singer and the 
lawyer Alan Dershowitz, who says it "demonstrates" how 
"faith ... threatens our very existence." Among the 
menaces Dershowitz sees is "the secular fanaticism of 
Noam Chomsky." Not him again!

     By the way, poor Noam Chomsky. What a reputation 
he's gotten. I first heard of him in the Sixties, when a 
professor of mine mentioned that he was both a genius in 
his field (linguistics) and a prominent critic of the 
Vietnam War. After reading a few of his books, I met him 
and found not the ferocious customer I'd expected, but a 
man you'd have a pleasant chat with in the faculty 
lounge. Now he's a threat to civilization?

     Anyway, people do get the strangest ideas, 
especially about other people's ideas. If you press hard 
enough, almost any idea, even the Pythagorean theorem, 
can appear "dangerous." Harris never explains just what's 
dangerous about the Sermon on the Mount, but I suppose 
that kind of thinking led to the Holocaust. Or maybe it 
led to Alan Dershowitz, which is alarming enough.

     One thing I learned in college is that a sharp 
philosophy major can prove just about anything. Harris's 
book illustrates this well. Religious faith may soon lead 
to "the end of civilization itself"? Well, I can remember 
when people were saying the same thing about Elvis 
Presley, and I still can't swear they didn't have a 
point. With all due respect to Elvis, only time will 

     The expression "leads to" should be used sparingly. 
Identifying historical causes is hard enough; predicting 
them is harder. In the real world, anything can lead to 
anything. Karl Marx sits in a library formulating the 
labor theory of value, and a few generations later 
millions of Russians are freezing in labor camps. 
Physicists discover the latent energy of the atom, and 
Harry Truman puts this idea to work in Hiroshima. And 
don't even get me started on Pythagoras.      


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