Sam Harris: militant atheism

I recently came across Natalie Angier's review of Sam Harris's book The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason. It has stuff like this:

''We have names for people who have many beliefs for which there is no rational justification. When their beliefs are extremely common, we call them 'religious'; otherwise, they are likely to be called 'mad,' 'psychotic' or 'delusional.' '' To cite but one example: ''Jesus Christ -- who, as it turns out, was born of a virgin, cheated death and rose bodily into the heavens -- can now be eaten in the form of a cracker. A few Latin words spoken over your favorite Burgundy, and you can drink his blood as well. Is there any doubt that a lone subscriber to these beliefs would be considered mad?'' The danger of religious faith, he continues, ''is that it allows otherwise normal human beings to reap the fruits of madness and consider them holy.''

In my view, those sorts of pot-shots don't do anyone any good.

But Angier argues that Harris is going a little further than that. The point is not his snide comments about religious faiths, but rather his right to make them. Harris feels that this right is in jeopardy:

''Criticizing a person's faith is currently taboo in every corner of our culture. On this subject, liberals and conservatives have reached a rare consensus: religious beliefs are simply beyond the scope of rational discourse. Criticizing a person's ideas about God and the afterlife is thought to be impolitic in a way that criticizing his ideas about physics or history is not.''

I don't think this is true. People in mainstream venues do criticize some religious beliefs quite openly, especially when those beliefs are seen as pernicious to human rights (for instance, the idea that God is against abortion and homosexuality can be widely and readily criticized).

Harris is worried that believers in the "metaphysics of martyrdom" (read: Muslims) will destroy the world. It is necessary to challenge their beliefs for the dangers they pose to us:

''We can no longer ignore the fact that billions of our neighbors believe in the metaphysics of martyrdom, or in the literal truth of the book of Revelation,'' he writes, ''because our neighbors are now armed with chemical, biological and nuclear weapons.''

Harris reserves particular ire for religious moderates, those who ''have taken the apparent high road of pluralism, asserting the equal validity of all faiths'' and who ''imagine that the path to peace will be paved once each of us has learned to respect the unjustified beliefs of others.'' Religious moderates, he argues, are the ones who thwart all efforts to criticize religious literalism. By preaching tolerance, they become intolerant of any rational discussion of religion and ''betray faith and reason equally.''

I'll go check out the book in the bookstore, but I am very skeptical of all this. It seems like Harris has a rather over-simplified (and Christian-centric) view of religion. I also wonder if he has any interest in whether his words will have an effect. Simply equating religious beliefs with irrationality is not going to get you anywhere, anyhow. (To loosely quote the Beatles)