Sam Harris, the author of Waking Up, is best known as one of the “Four Horsemen” of the “New Atheist” movement.
I first heard him speak on atheism in the summer of 2007 and was struck not so much by his disdain for the destructive potential of Biblical prophecy, but rather his interest in mysticism and Eastern spirituality. The metaphysical claims of certain yoga and meditation practitioners aside, Harris was open-minded, even curious as to the psychological benefits of such practices.
Harris’ interest took two dimensions: that of a philosopher concerned with how we might live a contented, meaningful life, and that of a neuroscientist, fascinated with the workings of the brain. His nuanced approach to spirituality was a refreshing contrast to that of his more uncompromising “horse brethren.”
Then things went quiet. In the context of populist atheist debate, Harris spoke less and less about his respect for Eastern spirituality, and instead focused on declaiming religious extremists. The figureheads of New Atheism continued to frame the study of religion as a literal critique of holy texts, with little mind paid to gathering sociological and psychological research (let alone classics like William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience).
For most “mainstream atheists,” the proposition that secularism has anything to learn from the study of religion is worthy of scorn. But despite proclamations about the irrational and superfluous nature of religion, it persists – even flourishes – across the globe.
Back in the late 1800’s Nietzsche realised that if civilisation was to cope with the death of God, new systems had to evolve to fill the void of direction and meaning provided by religion. This is the incredible challenge secularists face. The response to date has been the promotion of scientific and humanistic utopianism – the rather optimistic idea that mankind can save itself through science and technology. For many, this vision rings hollow – something still seems to be missing.
Popular atheism is in desperate need of a shake-up to stave off intellectual stasis and to stimulate its evolution. Behind the scenes, important work is taking place. Peter Sloterdijk’s You Must Change Your Life and Peter Watson’s The Age of Nothing are two recent examples, but these are complex and highly-specialised studies, unlikely to capture the imagination of the masses.
So when Sam Harris – one of atheism’s most recognisable figures – announced the publication of Waking Up, I could not help but get my hopes up.
Waking Up certainly begins well. In the remarkable opening chapter (which you can read online for free), Harris endorses hidden value within the body of religion:
Our world is dangerously riven by dangerous religious doctrines that all educated people should condemn, and yet there is more to understanding the human condition than science and secular culture generally admit. One purpose of this book is to give both these convictions intellectual and empirical support.
Harris begins to justify his claim by recalling his youthful experimentation with MDMA. Under the influence of the drug, he finds the psychological barriers that separate his sense of self from other people have fallen away. Freed from anxiety, envy and self-consciousness, Harris is overwhelmed by a boundless sense of love and empathy.
The episode has a profound effect on the author of The End of Faith, who says he felt “sane for the first time in (his) life.” Harris has what might be termed a “mystical experience” – a transformational state of consciousness:
I now knew that Jesus, the Buddha, Lao Tzu, and other saints and sages of history had not all been epileptics, schizophrenics and frauds. I still considered the world’s religions to be mere intellectual ruins… but I now understood that important psychological truths could be found in the rubble.
This is the premise on which this book rests: that humans have been having “deeply transformative insights” about the “nature of one’s own consciousness” for centuries, albeit largely outside the bounds of scientific inquiry. The problem, as Harris sees it, is these mystical experiences have been discussed “entirely in the context of religion and, therefore, have been shrouded in fallacy and superstition for all of human history.”
Very broadly, religion is comprised of two types: the experiential and the doctrinal. Some religious groups, like the Quakers, stress the primacy of personal experience and connection to the divine over rules and doctrine. Other forms focus heavily on doctrine and hierarchical authority, where any step outside the bounds of canon is seen as heretical and to be punished severely.
The latter represents the religion we know today: vast, man-made institutions subordinate to their own need for preservation, power and control. In this context, the idea that an individual can access “divine truth” on their own undermines the power and control of the Church.
German novelist and Nobel Prize winner Hermann Hesse captured this tension beautifully:
I have never lived without religion and could not live for a single day without it, but all my life long I have done without a church… This admirable Catholic Church is in my eyes only worth of reverence at a distance, and as soon as I approach, it has a smell, like every human institution, a strong smell of blood and power, of politics and secrecy.
Without quite knowing it, New Atheism’s fight is primarily with such institutions. Individuals who practise more personalised, fluid, even undefined spirituality slip through it’s net. Recent studies suggest 7 percen tof Americans describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious” – a proportion larger than self-identifying atheists.
Harris’ goal therefore is an incredibly relevant one. He wishes to reclaim mystical or psychological experiences from religion and place them firmly into a secular-scientific context. He goes as far as to push for a secular reclamation of the term “spirituality,” recognising that atheism’s current narrow discourse risks overlooking the “diamond in the dunghill” of religion.
Despite this ambitious objective, Harris is in no risk of compromising his skeptical nature and is careful not to provide oxygen to specious metaphysical claims.
For the most part, Waking Up reads like a guide to secular Buddhism for beginners. It charts Harris’ experimentation with Eastern spirituality, in which he reveals he has spent two years on silent retreats practising various forms of meditation. He adds neuro-scientific clout to Buddhism’s insistence that our conventional sense of self is an illusion, and encourages readers to experiment with their consciousness to “investigate the mind and deepen one’s ethical life,” with particular focus on the neurological benefits of mindfulness and meditation.
All this may come as a shock to readers accustomed to hearing Harris rail relentlessly against “the evils of Islam.” Harris appears to have anticipated such a reaction, for throughout Waking Up he displays a preoccupation with padding out his work for a populist atheist audience. As a result the book can be quite repetitious.
Harris returns to basic tenets of secular Buddhism again and again, perhaps in fear they might be rejected. Loud declarations are made against the metaphysical claims of spiritualists. Many pages are dedicated to the outing of mystical frauds, and a discussion of the relationship between confidence men and spiritual authority. These footnotes seem like self-conscious concessions and reduce the impact of the book. Considering the wider context of public debate, perhaps they are unavoidable.
Despite a lack of clarity in certain sections of Waking Up, I would not hesitate to recommend this book to my fellows atheists, agnostics, spiritualists and thinkers. Harris still manages to clearly outline the promise of a psychologically-orientated approach to philosophy and spirituality.
The challenge of secular, post-religious society is to take from religion what is useful or necessary for a contented life. Waking Up represents the opening up of this fertile intellectual space in popular culture, and inches the discussion a few small steps forward.
I hope this is not the last we hear from Harris on the subject. His credentials suggest he has much more to offer.
This piece was originally published at The Big Smoke.