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.

Where's the 757? It's right there...

A couple of months back I blogged about 9/11 conspiracy theorists and their refusal to accept the notion that the Pentagon was hit by an airliner rather than a missile or, who knows, Dick Cheney's laser-beam eyes. Mike J Wilson has made a detailed video which combines photographs of the scene with 3D animation to reconstruct events. If you're a sceptic, you're probably beyond help but I think this is a fascinating piece of work.

A conspiracy of dunces

The US Department of Defence last week released videos of Flight 77 being flown into the Pentagon on September 11, 2001. The footage was obtained by Judicial Watch, who filed a Freedom of Information Act request. Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch, said: "Finally, we hope that this video will put to rest the conspiracy theories involving American Airlines flight 77."

Fat chance of that; neither video shows anything conclusive. In both tapes, a blurred shape is visible for a second before the Pentagon is engulfed in flames. The shape could easily be a missile, as the conspiracy theorists claim, or it could be what it, in fact, is: an airliner.

The videos sparked debate across the internet. They argued on Metafilter, on Digg and on YouTube, where the videos were hosted.

The debate about 'what really happened' has been going on since September 12, 2001, but gained intensity with the Loose Change documentary, which has spread across the internet.

Loose Change makes a series of claims, from the seemingly reasonable – the US government knew more about Sept 11 than they let on – to the downright bizarre – the planes which flew into the WTC had missiles underneath them, which they fired moments before impact.

Much of it can be debunked simply by thinking about it. If you're flying an airliner into a building, why on earth would it need to fire a missile into the building as well? Having flown two airliners into the largest building in the world, why would you need to set explosives to demolish the building?

For some of the claims, however, a little more expertise is helpful.

The trouble is you can't argue with conspiracy theorists. Like the religious, they simply shift the goalposts when confronted with an argument that they can't refute. For religious people, the standard escape clause is "it's a matter of faith". For conspiracy theorists, it's "how convenient".

Thus… explanation: "The World Trade Centre collapsed because the structural integrity of the steel was compromised in the fire." response: "How very convenient for the government."

explanation: "Lax airport security allowed the hijackers to smuggle boxcutters onto the plane" response: "How very convenient for the government."

explanation: "Many WTC workers were late for work that morning because Monday Night Football had overrun." response: "How very convenient for the government." …and so on.

It's pretty easy to see that conspiracy theorists would have had a field day whatever the outcome of September 11. Suppose the hijackers had been thwarted at the airport: what a convenient way for the government to launch a 'war on terror' without bloodshed.

No matter what happens, it's always possible for a conspiracy theorist to find 'evidence' of a hidden agenda. Indeed, they often don't need evidence, the very lack of it constitutes proof for these people.

If they can pose a question that can't be answered, this somehow counts as proof of their version of events. Offer an answer and you're back in "how convenient" territory again.

Amusingly, conspiracy theorists aren't even safe from each other. The Project for the Exposure of Hidden Institutions has provided one of the most thorough debunkings of Loose Change, while What Really Happened argues that the US government wants you to believe there was no plane at the Pentagon because it hides the involvement of an Israeli spy ring.

There are many unanswered questions around Sept 11, some of them result from the sheer chaos wrought by the attacks and others are the fault of the US government itself, which has exploited the attacks to justify its policy aims and withheld information to protect incompetents within its ranks.

What I hate most about conspiracy theorists is that their nonsense gets in the way of holding governments accountable for real outrages, such as those above. They focus on deranged fantasies rather than face the hard slog of following paper trails and examining small print, which is the way real government conspiracies are exposed.

For all that they like to portray themselves as people who are not taken in by propaganda, as mavericks that are prepared to think the unthinkable, they are actually a conservative bunch.

They genuinely believe in the power of government, they really think there is an organised global ruling class. It's easier for them to think those things than to contemplate the idea that perhaps unfairness is built into the system, that thousands of tiny acts of selfishness can have major consequences and that sometimes bad things happen to good people.

In the case of Sept 11, there is the patronising dismissal of the level of anger in the Middle East. Surely an event such as this, they argue, could not have been carried out by a few angry Muslims - only a powerful Western government could have done this.

By extension, it seems to me, they absolve the US of its responsibility for the imperialist attitude it has displayed across the world since the end of WWII. It seems symptomatic of a pathetically insular world view.

In my own conspiracy theory, I wonder whether governments actually like having these people around. They are 'useful idiots' whose fevered imaginings distract the media from real outrages.