I'm currently reading (but haven't finished) The End of Faith by Sam Harris. The basic premise of the book is that institutionalized religion is no longer conducive to civilization. He makes the very reasoned argument that we are not, as a species, able to control our violent nature. This inborn need to kill those who disagree with us is exasperated by religion and, when combined with nuclear weapons, will eventually lead to the destruction of civilization, if not the species entirely.
Harris argues that codified beliefs are nearly guaranteed to incite violence. The basic premise is that if you believe, really believe, that the only way to please god is to obey the teachings a specific holy text, then you will see violent actions to suppress other beliefs and strengthen your own as not just acceptable, but holy, just, and necessary.
Let's say you believe that the only way to please god was to be a devout fan of the Florida Marlins baseball team. You must attend one game in person every year, watch all of the other games on TV, always be wearing some piece of licensed team apparel, and above all, root exclusively for the Florida Marlins. The community where you live is in Florida, so the majority of your neighbors are followers of Marlinism.
Somebody from New York moves in down the street doesn't wear a Marlins cap. They wear a Yankees cap. You distrust this person because they're unholy in the eyes of god. Your son starts to associate with the Yankee fan's son. More families from New York move into the area. They build a sports-bar with no Marlins jerseys on the walls. They don't show the Marlins game there -
(Stay with me here. Don't forget that you really believe that Marlinism is the only way to be acceptable in the eyes of god.)
- and worst of all they start attracting Floridians to their sports-bar. You are now, justifiably (in your own mind,) starting to become enraged. These Yankee people are starting to corrupt the precious youth of Marlinism. Their presence is beginning to anger god, who sends hurricanes crashing into your state as retribution for harboring fans who are wicked in his eyes. Not wanting your children to burn in the eternal fires of hell and wanting to avoid further retribution from a vengeful god, you throw stones at the windows of the Yankees sports-bar and assault people with pinstripe jerseys on the street.
Because you really believe that Marlinism is the path to god, your actions are internally consistent and justifiable. The fact that people are being beat up for supporting the wrong team does not concern you. These Yankees fans are abhorrent to god. You are serving god by punishing them. You will be rewarded for your anti-Yankee actions with better seats at the ballpark in paradise after you die. You will continue to hurl stones at windows until you die and can claim your seats right behind home plate at the ballpark in the hereafter.
Now substitute Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Confucianism (now technically known as Chinese traditional religion,) or Buddhism, for baseball teams, add nuclear weapons and shake... The results aren't pretty.
Harris, of course, uses the events of September 11th and the subsequent attention to fundamentalist Islam within the Western World as an 'in' to bring forward his assertation, that to survive as a species we must abandon religion as a rubric for guiding our actions. Harris spends a great deal of time examining the reasons why Islam as opposed to Christianity, Hinduism, or Buddhism is currently producing violent religious extremists. Basically, he says that Christianity did the same thing between 300 and 800 years ago. He has other reasons, I assume, for other major religions (I haven't read the whole thing yet.)
I agree with his basic premise, though I don't see religion disappearing from our world anytime soon. My only dissatisfaction with Harris' work is that while acknowledging that there are fundamentalist elements within all religions, he largely ignores it with respect to Christianity.
As an American, Harris is in a much better position to examine and confront the rising influence of home grown fundamentalists, such as the Christian Dominionists. These fundamental Christianists seek an America where Biblical law supersedes the Constitution, The State and certain fundamentalist churches are tightly intertwined, and 'Christianist' values are legislated. (See this site for more information on rising Christianist theocratic influence in America.)
Harris can, at times, seem a bit caustic. I would recommend this book to people who won't be offended by someone who goes beyond just questioning the validity of religion. There are people I know that I would like to expose to some of the ideas expressed within the book yet I wouldn't recommend The End of Faith to them. This is, in some ways, a great shame. Harris had to state his positions in the way that he did, strongly and unapologetically, but he's written off a large portion of the audience that needs to see his work. A less divisive version would be more palatable and at the same time, less effective.
For people of faith, it would take a very dedicated reader to go through Harris' book and be able to sift out the useful truths without being insulted or at least so disgusted with the author's critical positions as to give up entirely.