Against the Toleration of Religion

In his book, The End of Faith: Religion, terror and the Future of Reason (Free Press, 2004) Sam Harris argues that in a world with weapons of mass destruction we cannot tolerate views that pit one true God against another. Theology must justify itself ethically and reasonably and that means rationally.

Harris argues that belief fundamentally affects every aspect of your life. If you really believed that you had only two weeks to live or had won the lottery, everything would be affected by that belief. In the world as it is, many people believe that a creator of the universe has written a book, but there are several such books to choose from. People group themselves according to which book they think is the real book and there are many practices and beliefs that follow from the particular book they have chosen. Some of those beliefs and practices are not benign. The attitude of respect for people who follow a different book is not one that God supports. Intolerance is intrinsic to every faith, even if there might be a bit of ecumenicalism, as the main thrust of all religions is that the others are an error or worse, an evil. Religion, it seems undermines human cooperation.

Of course, religions are not all bad and religious people do some good. However, Harris argues we have been slow to realise the fundamental damage that religion does – the inhumanity it inspires. People may have spiritual and emotional needs which are met by religion, but at what price? One can counter that not all religions are extremist and in fact many religious people take a more liberal moderate position. However, Harris goes on to argue that religious moderates are those who have taken on board some of the fruits of human thought (e.g. democracy, human rights, scientific advancement). Religious moderation comes from the advancement of knowledge which leads educated people to ignore certain aspects of religious doctrine which do not stand up to scrutiny. It is not that reason is compatible with faith – they are not. Religious moderation is the result of secular thinking and ignorance of the sacred texts. Over time more and more religious truths are found to be unhelpful. Progress in religion seems to mean abandoning more and more aspects of the religion.


Harris goes on to argue that religion is a spring for religious conflict:

The recent conflicts in Palestine (Jews v. Muslims), the Balkans (Orthodox Serbians v. Catholic Croatians; Orthodox Serbians v. Bosnian and Albanian Muslims), Northern Ireland (Protestants v. Catholics), Kashmir (Muslims v. Hindus), Sudan (Muslims v. Christians and animists), Nigeria (Muslims v. Christians), Ethiopia and Eritrea (Muslims v. Christians), Sri Lanka (Sinhalese Buddhists v. Tamil Hindus), Indonesia (Muslims v. Timorese Christians), and the Caucasus (Orthodox Russians v. Chechen Muslims; Muslim Azerbaijanis v. Catholic and Orthodox Armenians) are merely a few cases in point. (p.26)

Millions have died as a direct result of religious difference. However, Harris is not ruling out spirituality. He argues that there are human experiences that can be appropriately described as “spiritual” or “mystical” – experiences, of meaning, selflessness, and heightened emotion that surpass our narrow identities as “selves”. These experiences do not justify arrogant claims of exclusivity about the sanctity of certain texts. In fact spirituality can be informed by all human experiences. We can situate our ethical intuitions and our capacity for spiritual experience within the context of a rational worldview. We need an extended moral identity which is not restricted to tribal considerations. Beliefs which mean people live life in the present world with their mind focussed on the next are unacceptable and must not be tolerated.


Harris makes the case that religion is not private. The pilot does not land his plane through prayer, though he may believe it possible for prayer to do this. Such an act would show negligence and would lead to criminal charges, should the pilot survive. Harris maintains that some beliefs are intrinsically dangerous and cannot be tolerated. If a belief about the rightness or wrongness of women’s dress can lead to violence or harm coming to such women, then the belief, despite its seaming innocuousness, is unacceptable.


Harris’ argument is powerful. It is a strong moral argument against religion based on a call to rationality and what he considers to be an honest reflection of what religion does in the world. The difficulty may in fact be not in terms of the critique he provides, but the application of his conclusion. The world where people are united around a rational system of ethics and spirituality sounds perfect but what about the transition period and what about the dissenters? To become intolerant of religions, and I think we can honestly say that it is religions that we are being intolerant towards, may produce quite considerable violence and death and not because of the resistance of the faithful. The example of the Nazi extermination of the Jews illustrates this.

The problem of human beings, Harris observes, is that they are irrational and the kind of irrationality leads to suffering. But is he right to think that a world where people are not allowed to have such religious beliefs, where their freedoms are restricted and where groups which have such beliefs are marginalised would be a better one? Human rights, which Harris attributes as a gift of secular thought, include the right to express freedom of religious belief. The intolerance shown to religious groups on the margins has been a significant agent in producing human rights. It is also wise to note that religion is not the only factor which determines the world view people have. Culture and ethnicity, quite apart from religion, inform peoples’ conduct. Would these escape the analysis if they were based on tradition rather than rationality? There are a whole range of experiences which people use to justify, in their own terms, the view of life that they have. To what extent can we restrict the kinds of interpretation that people make of their experiences when they veer away from the facts and the means by which facts are measured? Harris’ critique of the harm done by religion is very strong, but it remains to be seen how the intolerance he suggests can be morally justified.

A second issue with Harris’ argument is his definition of religion. Harris represents religion as an exclusive worldview which does not encourage respect for others and followers who do not take this seriously are not taking their religion seriously. He wants to replace this with a universally adhered to worldview. That is the same aim most fundamentalist religions have which seems a little worrying.

Thirdly, his representation of moderates is a weak part of his argument. Religious moderates do not cause the kind of death that fundamentalists do and so Harris needs another argument to challenge them. His argument is that they do no justice to their own religion but that only stretches as far as his definition of their religion is acceptable. Harris uses the basic analysis that religious people are book followers. But books do not characterise all religions by any means and this undermines his dismissal of the moderates. Debates about the interpretation of scripture and the role of other sources of authority, such as tradition is not accounted for. New age religions and new spiritualities simply would not fit his definition. Why must we accept a definition of religion which does not allow it to draw authority from a wide range of sources? Why are the only authentic religious believers literalists. It is worth remembering that Jesus did not follow the literal interpretation of law though he was in many, if not all respects, a good Jew by the definition accepted in his own time.

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