I sort of signed on to the Mind on Fire reading club project for The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the End of Reason, so now I have to say something nice about it ... no easy task. Here goes: I have learned, over the years, how to pick a good book. You get to know authors, you look for university presses, you check who endorses the book on the back cover, you note the author's tone and perspective in the Introduction, and so forth. I've gotten pretty good at it so I don't normally read bad books anymore. If you read nothing but good books, you recalibrate your expectations, forgetting how pathetic a badly written book can be. If you have fallen into this trap, you should read The End of Faith. It will remind you how badly a book can be written and still become popular.
Just a couple of quick points. First, the book suffers from a complete lack of data. There are two tables in the entire book, on pages 125 and 126, both showing a yes/no percentage breakdown of survey responses from Islamic countries. Scary data, showing how favorably citizens of these Islamic countries view suicide bombings. But that's about it for the book. If you've read anything written by Rodney Stark, for example, you just get impatient when someone goes on an on with generalizations about religion but gives no data to support it. The author claims to be a scientist in training — so get some data! I checked the bibliography: nothing by Stark listed.
And the bibliography also shows that the author is really only familiar with one side of the religion story. Four books by Bertrand Russell are listed; four by Richard Rorty; one by Dawkins; six entries for Daniel C. Dennett. But nothing by Rodney Stark. Nothing by Alister McGrath. No entry for Alvin Plantinga. One for Anthony Flew, but it's as editor of a collection of readings on parapsychology. These are serious gaps for a book that purports to critique religion and sports a 28-page bibliography as if to suggest the author is well informed on the subject. And check how many of the author's own books or articles are listed in the bibliography. Goose egg. It's not like he's drawing on earlier work he's done on the subject.
A last observation is that the style reminded me of Karen Armstrong, who also writes entertaining prose on the subject of religion that is almost entirely devoid of data. But Armstrong knows the field better, actually records enlightening observations rather than an endless stream of opinion, and takes a much more balanced approach. I think she deserves her popularity, if only as some sort of cosmic recompense for her early difficult trials as an apprentice nun. If you like this approach to the subject, my advice is skip Harris and read Armstrong.
I've said enough — I won't go on hashing the book. I know some of you like it, and that's fine. Chapter 4, "The Problem With Islam," was interesting, but I'm not sure how much confidence I can give it after the rest of the book. It's like after reading the chapter on Mormonism in one of those Kingdom of the Cults knockoffs, you can't trust anything else in the book. I think that if you are fond of the "religion is for fools, not for smart people like me" genre, you can do better. Read Bertrand Russell, a brilliant philosopher with the courage of his convictions. Read Dawkins, who at least writes like a competent scientist. Read Tom Paine's Age of Reason, which still sparkles after 200 years.
Oh, and I enjoyed the paragraph about cat burning in 16th-century Paris (which seems like an indictment of French morals, not morality in general, but maybe that's just me). So that's two things I like about the book.