In this post Kyle Thompson reviews Sam Harris’ new book. In it Thompson explores Harris’ argument that spirituality and nonreligion are compatible signalling an interesting departure from his scientific atheist perspective. Thompson argues that this shift in atheist discourse is one researchers of nonreligion should take note of.
For readers who casually follow the work of Sam Harris, known first and foremost for his consistent lambasting of all things religion, his new book, “Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion,” might come as an unexpected addition to the author’s bibliography given the common association of spirituality with religion. This means that Harris had to be careful not to scare away an audience of book-buyers who would be reluctant to take seriously the spiritual musings of a New Atheist while ensuring his loyal fans wouldn’t think he went off the deep end and became a New Ageist. It is perhaps this balancing act that caused “Waking Up,” a work of spirituality meets self-help meets science, to lack both philosophical rigour and a clear prescription for newcomers to spirituality. But no one should be unduly worried, Harris’ guide, flaws and all, offers an interesting turn within the secular, and New Atheist, discourse that deserves genuine attention from researchers and laypeople alike.
The first chapter of “Waking Up” is by far the most gripping and profound read. Here, Harris argues that spirituality, while traditionally intertwined with either religious dogma or New Age quackery, is a world that can be explored rationally. Frequently reinforcing his claim that one need not abandon reason to have a transformative experience through meditation, Harris seeks ‘to pluck the diamond from the dunghill of esoteric religion,’ knowing full well that many a guru has conflated mind expansion through introspection with a range of unsubstantiated beliefs about the cosmos and its origin.
Harris’ airtight reasoning regarding the rational exploration of spirituality in the first chapter is enough to make “Waking Up” an overall success, which is a strong testament to the timeliness of the issues Harris is interrogating. The year is 2015, and, while religion is showing no signs of disappearing, the number of people who say they are not religious is on the rise globally. Thus, more and more people find themselves outside of conventional religious communities, and, due to the traditional view that spirituality is inextricably bound to religion, outside of spiritually focused communities as well. This leaves some secularists ignorant as to the potential benefits of spirituality, others confused as to what spirituality even means, and yet others to unfairly characterize it as pointless. This translates into a great many secularists living lives devoid of spiritual practices like meditation and its well-documented benefits, either intentionally or unintentionally, simply because religion is often the only spiritual business in town.
Unfortunately, as one leaves the first chapter, a chapter filled with personal stories, basic instructions for meditation and sound reasons for thinking that atheists have become irrationally skeptical of spiritual practice due to its association with religion, one can’t help but find the rest of this book to be unsubstantiated and mildly disappointing. One of the most troubling examples of the former is Harris’ insistence that the self, that mysterious thing we call ‘I,’ is an illusion. His main line of reasoning is that humans can uncover the falsity of the self through the introspective scrutiny afforded by meditation in the same way that they can determine the illusory nature of an optical illusion by closely examining the image: “When we look closely, it vanishes.” But this is problematic because being able to meditate until we feel as though we are experiencing a loss of selfhood does not establish the illusory nature of the self. Couldn’t it be just as easily the case that Harris’ experience of the vanishing self is the illusion? In fact, it seems quite plausible that meditation enables one to focus on something besides the self to the degree that it feels like the self has disappeared, but in reality it lurks in the background, waiting to recount the story of its own obliteration.
In addition, if close examination causing something to vanish were the hallmark of illusion, then Harris must also admit that life itself is an illusion. After all, life vanishes every time we try to closely inspect it. To see how this is true, recall how uncontroversial it is that all living beings are completely made up of non-living bits, bits conveniently found on the periodic table. In other words, if anyone closely examines any life form, he or she will never find an actual thing called ‘life’ dancing around in the cell walls that animates the specimen; he or she will find minute particles that themselves show no signs of life whatsoever. And yet, it seems absurd to call life an illusion as I consciously sit and type this book review. If the self is going to be written off as illusory, it will not be by Harris’ meditation-inspired reasoning alone.
However, what makes “Waking Up” somewhat of a let down isn’t Harris’ inability to solve the (debatably) unsolvable riddle of the self; it is his discussion of meditation and enlightenment. For, even if the reader doesn’t agree with Harris’ conclusion regarding selfhood, there is a good chance he or she will still feel compelled to follow him down the contemplative rabbit hole and seek out whatever experiences motivated the penning of this book. Convinced of the possibility of rationally exploring spirituality and the power of meditation to deliver transformative experiences to its practitioners, one stands before Harris’ elucidation of meditation like a student before her guru, yearning to be taught the way to enlightenment, only to be handed a jumble of personal experiences and an odd thought-experiment that collectively present a muddled prescription for the would be meditator. The confusion and disappointment culminates when Harris’ personal journey does, the moment he is gifted the knowledge that his readers are eager to receive: ‘But after a few minutes, Tulku Urgyen simply handed me the ability to cut through the illusion of self directly…This instruction was, without question, the most important thing I have ever been explicitly taught by another human being.’ Does Harris make any attempt to relay the teaching he received? No. He simply recommends that readers seek out their own Dzogchen guru in order to receive proper teaching, leaving them wondering firstly if they are wasting their time practising meditation without a teacher and secondly why the subtitle of ‘Waking Up’ isn’t ‘Guru Not Included.’
But before readers let the downside of ‘Waking Up’ dominate conversations about its practical import in the lives of secularists, they should be aware that books of its kind often make waves in academia, wherein researchers take note of cultural shifts and changes in popular discourse. For my money, this book should not only serve as a modest proposal for secularists to reconsider their adverse reactions to anything spiritual, it should also function as a beacon for guiding future academic studies. More specifically, Harris’ discussion of spirituality ought to inspire more researchers to focus on which aspects of religion many secularists find most disagreeable, and vice versa.
In the end, Harris’ latest work explores new ground, but isn’t earthshattering. It brings attention to the potential benefits of secular spiritual practices, demonstrating with (generally) crystal-clear prose that jettisoning religious dogma does not require one to dismiss a contemplative life that benefits from increased awareness of the present moment. True, Harris’ philosophical conclusions regarding meditation are dubious at times, and his advice to spiritual neophytes is disappointing, but that doesn’t diminish the effectiveness of this work to serve as a clear wake up call to the secular world. It’s time more secularists realized that the religious do not have a monopoly on spirituality; there’s no reason why the secular world can’t access it too.
Harris, Sam. Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion. New York: Simon
& Schuster: 2014.
Havertz, Rieke. “Atheism On the Rise Around the Globe,” The Christian Science
Monitor, Accessed October 13, 2014, http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Global-News/2012/0815/Atheism-on-the-rise-around-the-globe
Kyle Thompson is a PhD candidate at Claremont Graduate University in the Philosophy of Religion and Theology program. His interests include atheism, secularism, scientism, not taking life too seriously, exploring the globe and playing music. He lives with his beautiful wife and his two amazing dogs in Claremont, CA.