The End of Faith

Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason

by Sam Harris

Featured in Mountain Record 24.2, Winter 2006

My goal in writing The End of Faith: Terror and the Future of Reason has been to help close the door to a certain style of irrationality. While religious faith is the one species of human ignorance that will not admit of even the possibility of correction, it is still sheltered from criticism in every corner of our culture. Forsaking all valid sources of information about this world (both spiritual and mundane), our religions have seized upon ancient taboos and prescientific fancies as though they held ultimate metaphysical significance. Books that embrace the narrowest spectrum of political, moral, scientific, and spiritual understanding—books that, by their antiquity alone, offer us the most dilute wisdom with respect to the present—are still dogmatically thrust upon us as the final word on matters of the greatest significance. In the best case, faith leaves otherwise well-intentioned people incapable of thinking rationally about many of their deepest concerns; at worst, it is a continuous source of human violence. Even now, many of us are motivated not by what we know but by what we are content merely to imagine. Many are still eager to sacrifice happiness, compassion, and justice in this world, for a fantasy of a world to come. These and other degradations await us along the well-worn path of piety. Whatever our religious differences may mean for the next life, they have only one terminus in this one—a future of ignorance and slaughter.

We live in societies that are still constrained by religious laws and threatened by religious violence. What is it about us, and specifically about our discourse with one another, that keeps these astonishing bits of evil loose in our world? We have seen that education and wealth are insufficient guarantors of rationality. Indeed, even in the West, educated men and women still cling to the blood-soaked heirlooms of a previous age. Mitigating this problem is not merely a matter of reining in a minority of religious extremists; it is a matter of finding approaches to ethics and to spiritual experience that make no appeal to faith, and broadcasting this knowledge to everyone.

Of course, one senses that the problem is simply hopeless. What could possibly cause billions of human beings to reconsider their religious beliefs? And yet, it is obvious that an utter revolution in our thinking could be accomplished in a single generation: if parents and teachers would merely give honest answers to the questions of every child. Our doubts about the feasibility of such a project should be tempered by an understanding of its necessity, for there is no reason whatsoever to think that we can survive our religious differences indefinitely.

Imagine what it would be like for our descendants to experience the fall of civilization. Imagine failures of reasonableness so total that our largest bombs finally fall upon our largest cities in defense of our religious differences. What would it be like for the unlucky survivors of such a holocaust to look back upon the hurtling career of human stupidity that led them over the precipice? A view from the end of the world would surely find that the six billion of us currently alive did much to pave the way to the Apocalypse.