The first book review I ever wrote was about Sam Harris’ The End of Faith. I thought it was dreadful (the book, not my review, which was brilliant).
You might think that I disliked Harris’ book because I’m a theist–I believe in God. But, I actually hated it because it was intellectually juvenile, philosophically ignorant, and laced with a hint of fascism.
So, it’s always nice when someone else confirms my reaction.
Thomas Dalrymple is the pen-name of a retired English physician. He’s a skeptic, something of a misanthrope, and does not believe in God. (He also has a wonderful wit, some deep wisdom, and writes prose to make grown men weep.)
Yet, his reaction to Harris’ book matched mine:
This sloppiness and lack of intellectual scruple, with the assumption of certainty where there is none, combined with adolescent shrillness and intolerance, reach an apogee in Sam Harris’s book The End of Faith. It is not easy to do justice to the book’s nastiness; it makes Dawkins’s claim that religious education constitutes child abuse look sane and moderate….
It is surely not news, except to someone so ignorant that he probably wouldn’t be interested in these books in the first place, that religious conflict has often been murderous and that religious people have committed hideous atrocities. But so have secularists and atheists, and though they have had less time to prove their mettle in this area, they have proved it amply. If religious belief is not synonymous with good behavior, neither is absence of belief, to put it mildly. In fact, one can write the history of anything as a chronicle of crime and folly.- Theodore Dalrymple, Not With a Bang But a Whimper: The Politics and Culture of Decline
This is not to say that a cogent case for atheism and anti-religion cannot be made. But, Harris didn’t make it. And even some of those who agree with him about the non-existence of God can see that. Dalrymple notes how very tedious, how recycled are the current crop of atheist writing:
The curious thing about these books is that the authors often appear to think they are saying something new and brave….The public appears to agree, for the neo-atheist hooks have sold by the hundred thousand. Yet with the possible exception of Dennett’s, they advance no argument that I, the village atheist, could not have made by the age of fourteen….
– Theodore Dalrymple, Not With a Bang But a Whimper: The Politics and Culture of Decline
Harris and the rest are so disengaged from the intellectual history of the west that they cannot seem to see why their efforts would be seen by those who know some intellectual history as almost laughable, and a poor shadow of far more robust efforts offered centuries ago.
And, the most amazing thing is that Harris has an undergraduate degree in philosophy. Yet, it is hard to think of any argument he makes that a first year philosophy student wouldn’t be competent to destroy. And, I say that as someone who took only one philosophy class.
It was called “Problems of Philosophy”. I thought then, as I do now, that the title was redundant. But The End of Faith doesn’t even rise to the stature of problem.