Sam Harris’s new post, “In defense of ‘spiritual’“, tries to reclaim that word from its associations with various species of woo—especially religion. Trying to extend it beyond Hitchens’s construal as “something that inspires awe,” Sam wants the word to apply to forms of “other-consciousness,” including those induced by drugs and meditation:
We must reclaim good words and put them to good use—and this is what I intend to do with “spiritual.” I have no quarrel with Hitch’s general use of it to mean something like “beauty or significance that provokes awe,” but I believe that we can also use it in a narrower and, indeed, more transcendent sense.
Of course, “spiritual” and its cognates have some unfortunate associations unrelated to their etymology—and I will do my best to cut those ties as well. But there seems to be no other term (apart from the even more problematic “mystical” or the more restrictive “contemplative”) with which to discuss the deliberate efforts some people make to overcome their feeling of separateness—through meditation, psychedelics, or other means of inducing non-ordinary states of consciousness. And I find neologisms pretentious and annoying. Hence, I appear to have no choice: “Spiritual” it is.
I agree that we should try to unload the woo-ish cargo with which the word has been freighted, but that will be a tough job—something that Sam simply can’t do on his own. It would require all of us using it in his particular sense, and then explaining what we mean when we use it. Given that the word has already been co-opted by many accommodationists, especially the Templeton Foundation and its minions (people like Elaine Ecklund, for instance, regularly conflate “spirituality” with “religiosity”), I can’t see the disentangling of meanings happening any time soon.
Sam is, he says, writing a new book. I don’t know what it’s about, but appears to deal with different types of consciousness (“In writing my next book, I will have to confront the animosity that many people feel for the term “spiritual.”) That, at least, is what his talk in Melbourne implied.
There is considerable value in discussing alterations of “normal consciousness,” phenomena I experienced not only in college during the Sixties, but in sporadic attempts at meditation thereafter. Anyone who has ingested psychedelic drugs is aware of the tremendous changes in perception that they induce—changes that can have lifelong effects. I refer in particular to the feeling of “oneness with the universe” that has been the butt of so many anti-hippie jokes. (e.g., “A Buddhist goes up to a hot dog vendor and tells him, ‘Make me one with everything.'”) It’s not something that can be easily dismissed, particularly because of its connection with similar feelings of religious people, feelings amply documented in William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience. None of that, of course, validates the truth of religious claims. But certainly such experiences require both discussion and scientific study. Equally certainly, Sam’s book will be worth reading, even if you disagree with it.
A side note: to me, the great virtue of Sam Harris is that he doesn’t pull punches, but says exactly what he thinks, even when it’s unpopular; and, above all, he makes you reexamine your own opinions. He has made me, for example, rethink the potential value of torture, of the effects of coddling Islam, whether moral values might be objective after all, and whether we have “free will” in any meaningful sense. And I think he’s been treated unfairly on several counts, with people misconstruing his views—sometimes, it seems, wilfully. One friend, for example, dismissed much of his talk in Melbourne about death because it smacked too much of “woo”. But if you listen to that talk, there’s no woo at all: just a suggestion that we can improve our lives by being mindful about how we think.
The ability to make us re-examine our cherished values—even if we wind up keeping them anyway—is the highest virtue of skepticism. If we believe something, we need to be sure we have good reasons for doing so. And among all the New Atheists, Sam has embodied that virtue most fully and diversely. He keeps us on the rails of rationality.