The implied purpose of this book is at best misleading. This book does not present any new ideas or insights into the nature of morality or ethics, rather, it seeks to define what those subjects are the domain of, and in doing so, it immediately presents a false dichotomy. Are morality and ethics the domain of Religion? Or are they the domain of Science?
Harris, by pointing out some downright diabolical behavior on the part of religious people, concludes (however dubiously on ‘those’ particular grounds), that it cannot be in the domain of Religion, and then makes the mistake, given the false dichotomy that he’s created, of something akin to: “Therefor is must be the domain of science”.
This conclusion however, is even more oddly framed. This occurred to be some days after my second reading of the book, it isn’t that Harris is saying “Ethics are the domain of science because they are not the domain of Religion” but rather, “ethics MUST NOT be the domain of religion, because that is dangerous, there for we must figure out some way of putting it in the domain of science.”
This leads Harris to both frantically try and crowbar the subject of ethics out of religion, and needlessly try and shoehorn it into that of science, and this largely exhausts the contents of the entire book. No new ethical system is presented (only a category of inquiry and the possibility that we "may one day" figure out a sew science of morality), and no new ideas given; only an insistence, time and time again that, religion cannot be the domain of ethical inquiry, so it must be the domain of science. Why must it be the domain of science? Not because there is any reason to put it there, but simply because we must remove it from that of religion.
If it sounds as though I’m repeating myself it is because the book its self is so repetitive, and makes so few actual points that I am forced to simply distil them for criticism.
Not only has Harris found himself being right for the wrong reasons, but he apparently is unaware that non religious, undogmatic ethical edicts, precepts and systems predate modern science by about 25 centuries.
First let me say, to the point that ethics can not be the domain of religion, that, while true, it has nothing to do with the behavior of its adherents. I have always found it odd that when religious people give a litany of good and charitable acts that were inspired by a person’s religion, this is always and in every case met with the observation that, one does not NEED religion in order to do those things, and that they might have been done by secular people for secular reasons. While this is undeniably true, it is unbelievably beside the point. It doesn’t change the fact that it was in fact religion that motivated them to do those good acts. However, when religion motivates a person to kill, riot, maim, etc. Now, all of a sudden it doesn’t matter that those acts might have been done by secular people for secular reasons, and that one does not need religion in order to do them, in this particular case, what motivates those actions is all that matters.
No, the reason that ethics is not the domain of religion is that religions are not ethical systems to begin with. An ethical system is a series of prescriptions for how to comport one’s self ‘on earth’, ‘in this life’ so that they may live well. Religious edicts pertain exclusively to how to know God, understand his will, and prepare yourself for the life beyond, it has little to do with this life at all; the Christian is not taught to imitate Jesus so that he can have a good life on this earth, but so that his soul will be prepared for what lies beyond this life. It is for this reason that ethics cannot be the domain of religion, religion is not concerned with ethics any more than geometry is.
To the point, and false dichotomy: "if not religion then science", (as if it’s one or the other), apparently Harris is not aware that (for example) Aristotle wrote a book on ethics and, some (myself included), might say, THE book on ethics, without any religion at all. Sound, practical and undogmatic ethical systems have long existed.
Finally, perhaps the most odd characteristic of the book (and the subsequent lectures he’s given to its effect) is that, when pointing out examples of immoral behavior or cultural practices, and designating them as immoral, he will often describe them as “obviously” so, or insist that anybody who would deny that X is immoral should simply not be allowed to take part in a conversation about morality.
What he does not do is give any scientific or neurological evidence to support the idea that stoning homosexuals, raping children, mutilating female genitalia, beheading women for being raped, etc, is wrong.
Indeed, none is required.