There's an online book group forming around The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason (WW Norton, 2004), so I thought I'd add it to my Featured Books queue and post early remarks, sort of an exercise in prereading. The author, according to the blurb on the back cover, is "now completing a doctorate in neuroscience, studying the neural basis of belief, disbelief, and uncertainty." Easy to sense the sort of presuppositions he brings to the inquiry: Science is good, religion is bad, and facts will conform to this view, or else.
Granted, I'm just sizing up the book before diving in, but it helps to know where the guy is coming from. A quick check comes from looking up, in the index, references to "communism," a secular and rabidly anti-religious movement that was responsible for brutalizing millions upon millions of people during the 20th century. Go read The Gulag Archipelago sometime, or even A Day in the Life if you're
lazy pressed for time. Anyway, there are three references to communism in the index.
Here's the first, at pages 78-79 of my paperback edition:
[T]he most monstrous crimes against humanity have invariably been inspired by unjustified belief. ... Even where such crimes have been secular, they have required the egregious credulity of entire societies to be brought off. Consider the millions of people who were killed by Stalin and Mao: although these tyrants paid lip service to rationality, communism was little more than a political religion.
Wow — it takes courage to reason that poorly and publish it. He cites two secular, anti-religious tyrants who killed millions as support for his critique of religion? Nazi fascism, too, is somehow depicted as a religious movement: "The anti-Semitism that built the crematoria brick by brick—and that still thrives today—comes to us by way of Christian theology. Knowingly or not, the Nazis were agents of religion" (p. 79).
It gets worse. My edition includes an "Afterword" in which the author responds to some criticisms he received. The first criticism listed is that, "Yes, religion occasionally causes violence, but the greatest crimes of the twentieth century were perpetrated by atheists." That does seem to be a problem with his view that religion is the big problem, doesn't it? He responds (and I'm not making this up, folks): "This is one of the most common criticisms I encounter. It is also the most depressing, as I anticipate and answer it early in the book (p. 79)." Well, I just quoted the material from page 79 to you. The discussion there amounts to nothing more than putting the label "political religion" on the acts of Stalin and Mao. Here's more from page 79:
At the heart of [Communism's] apparatus of repression and terror lurked a rigid ideology, to which generations of men and women were sacrificed. Even though their beliefs did not reach beyond this world, they were both cultic and irrational.
I am underwhelmed by the author's inability to grasp the inadequacy of his own argument even when it is highlighted as a primary criticism.
The second reference to communism is to page 100: "Even explicitly anti-Christian movements, as in the cases of German Nazism and Russian socialism, managed to inherit and enact the doctrinal tolerance of the church." And the third is like unto it, in a footnote at page 242: "While our differences with the North Koreans, for instance, are not explicitly religious, they are a direct consequence of the North Koreans' having grown utterly deranged by their political ideology, their abject worship of their leaders, and their lack of information about the outside world. They are now like a cargo cult armed with nuclear weapons." Somehow if the North Koreans are bad or irrational, that simply must be laid at the doorstep of religion, nevermind that there is precious little of it in North Korea to form the basis of even the weakest causal inference.
Well, so much for a preview. Who knows, maybe the book will surprise me.