The End of Faith : Religion, Terror and the future of Reason is the controversial best seller by philosopher Sam Harris. In it, he postulates the very real possibility of the end of civilization as we know it if we don't let go of two thousand year old dogmas and give up believing in invisible deities. Given the awesome power a single small group can command these days, and the irrational belief in a better "hereafter", Harris strongly argues this is a recipe for disaster in today's world.
He begins the book with a short overview of religious dogma gone crazy, including the Inquisition, the Salem witch trials and other examples of intolerance. He also lists several pages of apocalyptic and violent prescriptions against all infidels found in the Koran. Harris is not the first to notice the irony of the Muslim problems with sex during life and yet promising an afterlife replete with orgies. He also notes how "moderate Muslim" is an oxymoron, where by someone would have to pick and chose what parts of a holy book to believe and what not to believe. If you swallow any of the major books whole, you're living your life by the mores of a long dead culture.
The second half of The End of Faith is his attempt to rationally define things like morality, ethics and what it means to be a part of civilization, without resorting to some mystical being to kowtow to. He points out the failures of policies like pacifism, and the moral conundrum of torture and bombing civilians, as well as the old "would you torture someone if it meant saving countless other lives?" question. I found this part of the book a little hard going, but I think it was a very important part, as many attack atheism by saying you can't be moral if you don't believe in God, which is pure bunkum.
I found the book to be both enlightening and frightening. In many ways, I find the current backlash against Mormonism, especially by other religious fundamental groups, to be illustrative of many Harris points. I think the only reason why other groups make fun of the Mormon belief in a charlatan like Joseph Smith's "discovery" of the Book of Mormon buried under a bush in upstate New York is because of its relative recentness. At its heart, that story is as nonsensical as the burning bush, the Koran or any other "celestial" visions. And if anyone said that happened today, we would throw them in the loonie bin, yet instead these dusty old ideas remain inviolate today.
I'm anxious to read Harris' follow up, Letter to a Christian Nation, where he replies to the unsurprising invective hurled at him from all corners of the religious world after The End of Faith was published. I also liked his recent Washington Post article, The Empty Wager, where he eviscerates Pascal's famous wager, where believers are simply taking the wiser of two bets - believe in God and if he exists, you're golden and if he doesn't, well, you're just dead. But if the atheist is wrong, he's in big trouble. Be sure to also follow the link to his "debate" with Pastor Rick Warren. Good stuff. Between him, Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers, there's hope yet for a rational future.