In The End of Faith, Sam Harris passionately argues against faith (not just religion) and wants reason and rationality to govern virtually all human decisions. His principle problem with faith is that of evidence, contending that there is no evidence for God, and that the Bible or Koran or any other scripture whose tenets derive from revelation and are corrupted by inaccuracy, time and translation cannot possibly be vessels for truth - they are, to Harris, unjustified.
Harris also wheels out the old atheist argument that religion is responsible for a unique amount of suffering and death in the world, citing everything from The Crusades to modern Islamic Jihad in support of his case. He picks out passages from Deuteronomy and Koranic verses which instruct the believer to kill infidels, and on this basis riles against the seemingly unjustified and bizarre conduct of those who believe in the truth or even morality of it. The traditional counter-argument (in fact mentioned by one of the other reviewers here) that Stalinism and Maoism, both atheistic movements, were responsible for countless atrocities and mass murder proves violence is human, not religious, is dismissed by Harris with relative ease, and not without justification: "although these tyrants paid lip service to rationality, communism was little more than a political religion." (p.79)
Harris' principle aim is to demonstrate the destructive nature of unjustified belief, of which the major religions are the most virulent forms, and that if people were rational, considered evidence and did not merely accept fanciful, supernaturalistic explanations from authority for the way the world works, things would be better all round. It is clear that Harris believes ridding the world of religion would be of benefit, and his motive is to make the world a more humane place.
To make his thesis comprehensive, Harris attempts to show that religion (and unjustified beliefs in general) have impacted on the world in a multitude of ways, and his book spans topics as diverse as the legalisation of drugs, abortion, politics in the middle east, spirituality and even some epistemology (the philosophy of knowledge); he argues against relativism and pragmatism (a long footnote at the back of the book has a hack at Rorty, for example).
Harris also covers some scientific theories and tries to demonstrate that they are preferable to the completely inaccurate and half-baked testimony found in religious texts. As he puts it: "the God of Abraham is not only unworthy of the immensity of creation; he is unworthy even of man."
But this book is not hard to read. Although it is dense with discussion, it reads like a well-oiled polemic in the tradition of Bertrand Russell; a sort of pop-philosophy, designed with the layman in mind, and far more interested in conveying the seriousness and gravity of the situation than with intricate philosophical detail (although his footnotes sometimes manage it).
It is obvious that Harris is a very clever man.
However, there are some very deep problems with his book. Harris is, at root, a mild (perhaps medium) reductionist, seeking out ways in which to highlight religion's blame for various human travesties, sometimes to the point where he neglects at all to accept alternative ideas or even to consider them. Politically, his stance is that fundamentalism, being chiefly a product of the middle-eastern Islamic faith, is largely if not wholly responsible for the upheaval in that region. He rejects outright alternative theories, such as that western imperial campaigns have resulted in both increased fanatic militancy and a deterioration in economic (amongst other) conditions in the middle-east. Harris makes a point of attacking Noam Chomsky, the veteran American political gadfly, by trying to show flaws in his moral calculus. Specifically, Harris takes the example of a pharmaceutical plant struck by US bombers in Sudan in 1998. The official US administration position was that the plant was taken to be a chemical weapons factory. In fact, the blow killed innocent workers and depleated the supply of vital drugs in the region. Chomsky, who sees this as an example of the moral callousness of western tactics (see his little book "9/11"), equates such crimes with those whom are called "terrorists" over here. But Harris argues that the strike was justifiable, perhaps in part, as part of a campaign to eliminate Islamist madmen bent on destroying democracy. They were, of course, motivated solely by their fundamentalist religious precepts, and not, as other more balanced analysis suggests, also a factor of foreign aggression.
Harris is therefore a blend, politically speaking. He sounds hawkish and determined to strike the irrational fundamentalists by force, if necessary: "all reasonable men and women have a common enemy...Our enemy is nothing other than faith itself...the West must either win the argument or win the war." (p.131) On the other hand, he rages against the Christian right in the US, against the illegalisation of marijuana, abortion and euthanasia (in certain situations). He is not easily categorized in traditional left vs right terms.
Further problems with his book is his idea of truth, which he posits can only come by rationally comparing data about the world "out there" with hypotheses - he would like a scientific approach to everything, it would seem. This deep dependence on rationality makes one uneasy, however. Particularly so since Harris is almost willing to be militant about it (pacifism is another position he tries to argue against - although for some reason he criticizes only Gandhi, rather than pacifism as a whole). The unchecked acceptance of reason in all walks of life have deep problems (see Pirsig's "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" for a brilliant discussion of this). Harris, therefore, in my view, edges very close to a position he is arguing against: fundamentalism. He seems to me to be nearly a rationalistic fundamentalist, and his book doesn't explain some deeply important problems. Harris does discuss spirituality to some extent, and puts forward ideas about how it could be pursued, especially along the lines of meditation. But his limited approach to the topic did not satisfy me that he had considered all of the ramifications of rejecting irrationality without exception. For instance, his description of love is also stunted, expressed in terms of mutual benefits for people who share their lives - but what of the irrational, maddening, kind of love in the romantic, sensuous, heart-fluttering sense? That is not rational in the Harris sense, yet he omits to mention experiences as important as this very often.
In part the problem with this book is that it tries to do too much all at once. Harris should probably have published far more detailed analyses of the individual topics he discusses. As it is, his effort is not bad, and very hypnotic: but it suffers from trying to stretch across too many disciplines without enough detail. I think this is a function of the audience Harris is aiming at, but this book in the end may have the converse effect to Harris' intention; it may give people "a little knowledge", which as we know is a "dangerous thing".
In summary the book is ambitious, provocative, easy to read but intelligently written, enjoyable, spans a wide range of topics, doesn't have enough detail, makes an ultimately reductionist argument, contains a mixture of political opinions, reserves special levels of vitriol for Islam (which some may be offended by), and probably qualifies as a very important argument to consider. (Of its 336 pages, only 227 is the actual main text, the rest is footnotes). It is worth buying, but not necessarily buying into - be cautious about how Harris rejects certain ideas and how much evidence HE gives, and what in turn he fails to consider!