As I’ve mentioned before, Sam Harris has written a new book, Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion, which will be on sale September 9. Full disclosure: I’ve read it and given it a blurb: “As a neuroscientist, Sam Harris shows how our egos are illusions, diffuse products of brain activity, and as a long-term practitioner of meditation, he shows how abandoning this illusion can wake us up to a richer life, more connected to everything around us.”
As my blurb notes, it’s a wide journey through the land of spirituality, ranging from the latest findings of neuroscience to a chapter on gurus Sam has known. He recounts his experiences with drugs, and tells us what he’s gained from his own many years of Buddhist study and meditation.
The book will surely anger or confuse those people who think Sam has gone soft on religion, but take my word for it, there’s not an iota of sympathy for the divine in the book. And, having taken psychedelics in my youth, I have considerable sympathy for trying to understand what the brain is really capable of, and how our perceptions can be altered. (I myself am really glad I tried those consciousness-altering substances, for such experiences are both perceptually stunning and potentially life-changing.)
At any rate, New York Times writer Frank Bruni, in a Sunday op-ed piece called “Between Goddiness and Godlessness,” discusses Sam’s book, and, I’m glad to say, with considerable sympathy. An excerpt:
IN books and lectures since “The End of Faith,” Harris has increasingly redirected his energies from indicting organized religion — “I’ve ridden that hobbyhorse,” he told me — to examining the reasons that people are drawn to it and arguing that much of what they seek from it they can get without it. There is the church of Burning Man, he noted. There is the repetition of mantras. There are the catharsis and clarity of unsullied concentration.
“You can have spiritual experience and understand the most thrilling changes in human consciousness in a context that’s secular and universal and not freighted with dogma,” he said when we spoke on the telephone last week. It was a kind of discussion that I wish I heard more of, and that people should be able to have with less fear of being looked upon as heathens.
I’m not casting a vote for godlessness at large or in my own spiritual life, which is muddled with unanswered and unanswerable questions. I’m advocating unfettered discussion, ample room for doubt and a respect for science commensurate with the fealty to any supposedly divine word. We hear the highest-ranking politicians mention God at every turn and with little or no fear of negative repercussion. When’s the last time you heard one of them wrestle publicly with agnosticism?
During my conversation with Harris, he observed that President Obama had recently ended his public remarks about the beheading of James Foley by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, which wraps itself in religion, with a religious invocation: “May God bless and keep Jim’s memory, and may God bless the United States of America.” That struck Harris as odd and yet predictable, because in America, he said, God is the default vocabulary.
“There’s truly no secular or rational alternative for talking about questions of meaning and existential hopes and fears,” he said.
There should be. There’s a hunger for it, suggested by the fact that after Harris recently published the first chapter of “Waking Up” online as a way of announcing the entire volume’s imminent release, readers placed enough preorders for the book that it shot up briefly to No. 22 on Amazon’s list of best sellers.
Some of those buyers, as well as many other Americans, are looking for a different kind of scripture, for prophets purged of doctrine, for guides across the vast landscape between faithlessness and piety, for recognition of this fecund terrain. In a country with freedom of worship, they deserve it.
It’s good to see this kind of discourse, especially in a paper that, to me, shows unwarranted sympathy for religion. Although Bruni won’t admit to being an atheist, he does admit that he’s confused, and it’s refreshing that he’s even encouraging discussion about religion and whether religion is a justifiable practice, although this phrase by Bruni leaves me feeling a bit queasy: “I’m advocating unfettered discussion, ample room for doubt and a respect for science commensurate with the fealty to any supposedly divine word.” Commenurate? Commensurate? To any rational person, respect for science and the truth it has given us, and the improvements not only in our own lives, but in our intellectual understanding of our origins and our universe—that far outweighs any “fealty” to superstition. Nonetheless, Bruni does point out that even agnosticism is poisonous for politicians in our faith-soaked country.
I expect that, as usual with Sam’s books, the atheist community will be divided on this one. But I also expect it will sell well, for anything that smacks of “spirituality” in a day when, as Bruni notes, many of the “nones” are seeking spiritual alternatives to conventional religion, will be of interest. And, indeed, the book is doing well more than a week before it’s even appeared. The Amazon rankings a few minutes ago:
If you’re interested but don’t know if you want to take the plunge, Sam has published the first chapter for free on his website. Have a look.
The cover is good, too: