Book fourteen: The End of Faith by Sam Harris

Sam Harris has a background in philosophy and neuroscience. He has also, according to the book's blurb, studied "both Eastern and Western religious traditions ... for twenty years". In The End of Faith he argues that religion has more than outlived its usefulness to humanity; it is now a threat to our survival. I'm an atheist and, like Harris, I'm increasingly tired of the number of problems caused by people arguing over which imaginary supernatural being has the best powers. I was looking forward to reading this but the more I read, the less I found myself agreeing with him.

For a start there's his prose style. He isn't an especially good writer, particularly when he goes on flights of fancy: "The only angels we need to envoke are those of our better nature." Ugh. But worse is his general tone of arrogance and sarcasm towards the faithful. I agree with his general argument and he still irritated me immensely, so how anyone even moderately religious would make it through the book is beyond me.

Now it would be one thing if Harris argued his case well but he doesn't. For his thesis that religion is dragging us to our doom to work, he has to show that it isn't just fundamentalists that are the problem but moderates too. Moderates, he says, generate a climate in which the rest of us are unable to challenge religion. The existence of his own book surely refutes that claim. Not only that but, as others have pointed out, many religious moderates regularly criticise extremists from their own religion.

And he also needs to show that religion has been the cause of political conflicts - even when religion itself is nowhere to be seen. Which means a little bit of contortionism to squeeze in Hitler - not the most religious of people - and Stalin. Communism is, Harris says, "little more than a political religion". [That sound you hear in the background is Harris's argument stretching to breaking point.]

If any strongly held dogmatic views are basically religions, then Harris is as guilty as the next man. His dogmatic insistence that pure reason should guide all our behaviour takes him to some pretty ugly places.

His justification for torture runs thus: if we accept that some innocent people will be killed as a result of military action, why shouldn't we accept that some innocent people will be tortured in the pursuit of terrorism?

Now let's note the fact that he's built his argument on shaky ground; many people disagree fundamentally with his premise that killing innocent people during military action is acceptable. And these people aren't necessarily pacifists - a group Harris despises for their "moral cowardice".

So, after spending a chapter on the Spanish inquisition and explaining why torture in religion's name is barbaric, he then argues himself into a position where torture in democracy's name is justifiable.

At the end, the book takes a truly astonishing turn as Harris spends a chapter extolling the virtues of spirituality and meditation, with a particular nod towards the wonders of Buddhism, which is conveniently not a religion. But Communism is, remember. Rightly, he has drawn criticism for this aspect of the book.

So we've gone from a hectoring, neo-Con, bar-room bore to some kind of twittering hippy:

You are now seated, reading this book. Your past is a memory. Your future is a matter of mere expectation.

Well, duh. Somebody bring back the other guy. Don't leave me with this idiot.

Anyway, that was book fourteen. It was rubbish.