Recommendation: Yeah nah
Where to read: Like not, and definitely not next to nice old ladies on the bus**
Read with: An awareness of the post-9/11 zeitgeist in which this was written
In brief: This is an uncomfortable read, and I say that as an atheist. Give me some Hitchens or Dawkins any day of the week.
For a start, Harris does not write (or think) as well as his atheist fellow-travellers. Dawkins is far more compelling (and funnier) and Hitchens is more savage, more measured and far better read, frequently to a breathtakingly erudite degree.
For a second, there are some fairly awful ideas here breaking bread with the good. There is a solidly alarmist, Huntington-style, clash of civilisations argument underpinning most of the book. Christianity and Judaism come in for some criticism but the bulk of the book focuses on Islam. Some of his points are well-made and I’m sure he’s done some of his research but his commentary in a few places, on radicalisation for example, is pretty simplistic. And again, he’s not saying anything Hitchens or Dawkins haven’t said better elsewhere.
More seriously, it horrifies me that so little attention been paid to the fact that Harris makes the argument that torture is not only justified but morally necessary in some circumstances. Naturally, this is framed as a response to terrorism rather than something which might be utilised in the criminal justice system but his logic extends just as easily. This whole train of argument doesn’t appear to be particularly well-digested but its inclusion is alarming, to say the least. It also doesn’t say much for the thoroughness of the moral arguments advanced elsewhere.
Harris has often been accused of islamophobia and racism and it’s not too hard to see why. I have no doubt that some, or indeed most, of that criticism is more than a little disingenuous (particularly on islamophobia) however it’s not entirely baseless either. The counter-argument, being that the fear of Islam is rational, only takes you so far.
Personally, I find Harris far more interesting in debate or his podcast than in print. There’s also a fairly misc detour into meditation and spirituality somewhere in the middle there and to be honest, it was a bit of a drag. That’s probably more a reflection of my almost complete lack of interest in that sort of thing.***
**unless you’re like me and find watching “it’s so nice to see a young person with a book these days” going to war with “HEATHENS! What has become of the youth” profoundly hilarious.
*** more Hermione than Luna, I’m afraid.