Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Sam Harris: Exploring the Territory "Between Godliness and Godlessness"

In his Sunday New York Times column "Between Godliness and Godlessness", Frank Bruni relates his conversation with author Sam Harris about his forthcoming book, Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion. In responce to the religious motivation of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and the late Christopher Hitchens began a a public debate on what they perceived to be the inherent dangers of religious belief. Harris' The End of Faith (2004) was a New York Times best-seller and he has continued to speak and write on the conflict between religion and modern Western values.

Yet as Bruni writes, over the past ten years Harris has softened his criticism of religion and refocused his attention on the question of what attracts people to religion in the first place. In doing so, Harris does seem to be riding a cultural wave. Based on the subtitle of this new book, he is addressing the fastest growing segment of the population, recently dubbed "the nones." These are people who claim a sincere religious or spiritual interest yet have no membership or interest in any specific religion. Their most common self-description is "I'm spiritual but not religious."

This designation often drives clergy crazy; I've heard the disparagement many times. It's dismissed as another example of the "me generation" wanting feelings and experiences while avoiding genuine human involvement or commitment. No doubt there is some truth to this but it isn't the whole story. The drift away from religion has been going on for too long a time, and involves too diverse a population, to be dismissed as a symptom of the latest cultural quirk.

What Bruni likes is that Harris is attempting to start a conversation on a topic that is too often ignored or dismissed by religious people:
The question is this: Which comes first, the faith or the feeling of transcendence? Is the former really a rococo attempt to explain and romanticize the latter, rather than a bridge to it? Mightn’t religion be piggybacking on the pre-existing condition of spirituality, a lexicon grafted onto it, a narrative constructed to explain states of consciousness that have nothing to do with any covenant or creed?

Bruni goes on to relate this observation by Harris:
“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.

The questions Harris is asking, and Bruni is encouraging, are ones that often make religious people squirm and get angry. Even more liberal religious traditions retain the notion that they are somehow unique and "true." The notion that spiritual experience is generically human irrespective of a person's religious tradition, or of having any religious tradition at all, is not one religious leaders, especially, want to entertain. Yet this is genuinely new ground that needs to be explored, "the vast landscape between faithlessness and piety," as Bruni describes it. It will only be religion's loss to ignore it, for such new territory can't just be wished away. The church's experience with Galileo certainly showed that.

1 comment:

Ron Krumpos said...

In "Waking up" Sam Harris uses the terms 'spiritual' and 'mystical' interchangeably. Just as he says that you do not have to be religious to be spiritual, so too you do not have to believe in God or be religious to be a mystic.

In my free ebook on comparative mysticism, "The Greatest Achievement in Life," I summarized many similarities, and some differences, among the mystics of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism.

Ironically, the man who personally introduced me to mysticism was an atheist who once wrote "God is man's greatest invention." Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar was also a Nobel astrophysicist at the University of Chicago.