It struck me as I was reading the first couple of chapters that there are strong similarities between his journey and mine. We both understand the world, at bottom, through a scientific lens.
I was raised by a step-father who taught physics, chemistry, and mathematics at a high school and college level. I was raised by a mother who was a chemical engineer, going on to get her PhD in Chemical Engineering and getting a job as a professor in an excellent engineering program. They encouraged us to participate in science fairs, and to look for evidence and use our reason to understand it. They were anti-superstition, and never pretended that Santa Claus was actually providing our Christmas presents.
These are the priorities and attitudes I take from my parents. So when Sam Harris writes about the connection between spirituality and the scientific evidence of how our minds work, claiming that spirituality must be understood in the context of neuroscience and psychology, then I find myself nodding right along with him. For example:
"Although such experiences of 'self-transcendence' are generally thought about in religious terms, there is nothing, in principle, irrational about them. From both a scientific and a philosophical point of view, they represent a clearer understanding of the way things are. Deepening that understanding, and repeatedly cutting through the illusion of the self, is what is meant by 'spirituality' in the context of this book.
Confusion and suffering may be our birthright, but wisdom and happiness are available. The landscape of human experience includes deeply transformative insights about the nature of one's own consciousness, and yet it is obvious that these psychological states must be understood in the context of neuroscience, psychology, and related fields."
And yet we diverge from our shared path quickly on the question of what will replace organized religion for many people. In the very next passage, Harris writes:
"I am often asked what will replace organized religion. The answer, I believe, is nothing and everything. Nothing need replace its ludicrous and debasing doctrines--such as the idea that Jesus will return to earth and hurl unbelievers into a lake of fire, or that death in defense of Islam is the highest good. These are terrifying and debasing fictions. But what about love, compassion, moral goodness, and self-transcendence? Many people still imagine that religion is the true repository of these virtues. To change this, we must talk about the full range of human experience in a way that is as free of dogma as the best science already is."
The optimism in this passage is admirable; he seems to think that it is possible to get away with replacing religion with something other than a new and different religion. That's a very odd claim coming from someone who in The Moral Landscape set out to place the final piece in the puzzle of making the scientific worldview into a religion. While it is not his intention to help give birth to a new religion, that is the most likely outcome of his project.
In the past, when societies have attempted to eliminate religion, what have inevitably sprung up are new or revitalized religions, whether those religions were the new state-sponsored cults like those of the Roman Empire and Soviet Russia or religions of those oppressed by the state such as Christianity under the Roman Empire or the Druze under the Ottoman Empire. Even under the circumstances of the French Revolution, perhaps best suited to bring about the end of religion by drawing on the intellectual tradition of the Enlightenment, we saw no death of religion.
And even in those parts of Europe and the U.S. which are largely secular now or "spiritual but not religious", the new religion isn't a religion of self-transcendence, but rather of self-indulgence. It is the worship of our own pleasure and our own talents, writ large in the space in which Europeans used to worship God. Even where there is technically no religion dominating social groups, the values they draw upon are generally incoherent with the values Harris (rightly, I think) seeks to promote. Even among committed secularists (and Harris himself notes this), there is a general suspicion of even these valuable treasures he proposes to give them from the experience and writing of great mystics and sages, divested of their religious cosmologies and funny hats.
One thing I admire about Harris is his willingness to build something positive on the ground science and reason have provided rather than merely attacking what was already built by our ancestors. I just don't think that the evidence of human behavior and human history suggest that what he is building will turn out to be anything other than a new religion; in fact, the evidence seems to suggest that a new religion is precisely what will be the result of his efforts even if his project goes well.
This, of course, is not at all the result he desires. Like me, he was drawn to Buddhism and found many valuable insights in the Buddhist traditions, including the love, compassion, moral goodness, and self-transcendence we both see as wonderful and worthwhile. We both went deep into Buddhism and explored other religious traditions in search of these things. Like him, I ended up rejecting Buddhism in the end despite the many good things I found in it.
Also like him, I think the meditation practices of Buddhism are valuable whether or not one is a Buddhist. He goes a step farther than I would and suggests that we can divorce Buddhist meditation from the cosmology of Buddhism and use it as a part of our spirituality sans religion. I find it hard to swallow his proposal that we can separate Buddhist meditation from Buddhism, that the methods of meditation developed within the Buddhist tradition make sense apart from the Buddhist cosmology, and for reasons he articulates in Waking Up:
"In this sense, learning to meditate is just like acquiring any other skill. It takes many thousands of repetitions to throw a good jab or to coax music from the strings of a guitar. With practice, mindfulness becomes a well-formed habit of attention, and the difference between it and ordinary thinking will become increasingly clear. Eventually, it begins to seem as if you are repeatedly awakening from a dream to find yourself safely in bed. No matter how bad the dream, the relief is instantaneous. And yet it is difficult to stay awake for more than a few seconds at a time."
I know from experience that this is an entirely accurate description of the difficulty of meditation. He is not overselling the amount of time and effort required for becoming proficient in it. So how many people do you think have the kind of motivation required to spend that kind of time and effort on it?
How many people who are "spiritual but not religious" and can't be bothered to go to communal praise and worship once a week for, at best, modest benefit to their spiritual life in the sense of a temporary relief from their daily lives, are going to go to far more trouble to become proficient in meditation for, at best, a modest benefit to their spiritual life in the sense of a temporary relief from their daily lives? Even assuming a slightly higher benefit and a significantly higher reliability to the method, I have serious doubts that serious meditation, even for beginners, is going to appeal to most of the folks he wants to reach.
Most people seem to require an extraordinary motivation of some kind in order to discipline themselves in the spiritual life long enough to really reap the benefits of the practice. And for an atheist who believes the scientific cosmology and nothing else, what extraordinary motivation could be provided? Some atheists who are suffering from clinical depression might have such an extraordinary motivation. Some might be so profoundly inquisitive and empirical (which seems to be the case for Harris and I) that we would seek it out of those motivations.
But what about the people whose lives are just good enough to meet their expectations of happiness, lurching from pleasure to pleasure quickly enough to not look for anything deeper? What about the people who have such low expectations of happiness that going deep into the spiritual life seems an exercise in futility? The Buddha offers those people a cosmology of suffering, a visceral description of what awaits them if they do not transcend the cycle of death and rebirth. He provides an extraordinary motivation for going beyond their current practices into practices which can lead to self-transcendence, a reason to commit to the discipline required for such practices.
Sam Harris and the broader mindfulness movement among non-religious folks cannot offer this extraordinary motivation because they have chosen to divorce Buddhist meditation from the Buddha's cosmology of suffering. They wish to let the meditation live while killing the Buddha, albeit killing the Buddha in a very different sense than the Buddhist would mean it. This approach of wresting the meditation out of Buddhism and setting it onto scientific ground leaves us with a cosmology without the Buddha, in which the Buddha who transcended the cosmos of suffering does not exist. In the cosmology of the mindfulness practitioner who eschews religion, the Buddha is dead.
My suspicion, based on the evidence of human behavior throughout history, is that the project of building a healthy form of spirituality without religion will fail to kill the Buddha, and that it is far more likely that the Buddha will end up killing the project because he offers far more than can the purveyors of spirituality without religion.
It may simply be the case that "Less dogma is more." is not a successful approach that one can take to delivering deep spirituality to humanity today, just as it has not been for the entire course of the evolution of our species.
Note: Photo credit goes to me.