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Sam Harris is Still Railing Against Religion
Even in his new spiritual memoir, Harris is selling doubt
With his first book, The End of Faith, published in the aftermath of 9/11, Sam Harris gave voice to an uneasy feeling shared by a growing number of Americans: Was religion the source of all evil in the world? With that provocative thesis, Harris slinked from the shadows. Suddenly the onetime college dropout was debating religious leaders and public intellectuals on history and values. He was fresh off a decade-long spiritual quest—supported by his family—going on meditation retreats, traveling in Asia, and reading voraciously about belief. In 1997, he returned to Stanford to complete his undergraduate degree and later earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience at UCLA. But, as Harris tells it, when he watched the World Trade Center collapse as a 34-year-old graduate student, his frustration over the ensuing discourse catalyzed into a 348-page screed against organized religion that spent almost a year on The New York Times best-seller list. It articulated, as one reviewer put it, “what a sizable number of us think, but few are willing to say in contemporary America.”
As Western society grappled with radical Islam, Harris distinguished himself with his argument that modern religious tolerance had placated us into allowing delusion rather than reason to prevail. Harris upended a discussion that had long been dominated by cultural relativism and a hands-off academic intellectualism; his seething contempt for the world’s faiths helped launch the “New Atheist” movement, and together with Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Daniel Dennett, he became known as one of the “Four Horsemen of the Non-Apocalypse.”
In the next decade Harris wrote four more books, adopting a popular philosophical tone in their examination of free will, lying, faith, and a morality informed by science. Those concepts may seem disparate, but not to Harris. “These topics are unified in my mind, but when you look at them on paper, it’s a strange list,” he says. “I’m just noticing the difference between believing things for good reasons and believing things for bad reasons. It’s the difference between dogmatism and being truly open to evidence and argument.”
This month Harris offers an authorial curveball: a spiritual memoir. In his new book, Waking Up, he encourages readers to seek transcendent experience through meditation and mindfulness. His goal, he writes, “is to pluck the diamond from the dunghill of esoteric religion.” Harris’s journey began in the winter of 1987, when at 19 he took ecstasy. He had already been thinking about the bigger questions of existence after a friend’s death was followed a few years later by the death of Harris’s father in 1984. Harris grew up in L.A., the child of divorced parents. His mother was born Jewish; his father, Quaker. At home God was not believed in or much discussed. He was an argumentative only child, and when his mother asked whether he wanted to attend Sunday school, he replied, “Why would I want to do that?” It was the end of any religious upbringing.
But that winter night on ecstasy, Harris experienced a new reality. He felt his anxious, critical nature fall away. He felt overwhelming love for his friend and a boundless love for all of being. That brush with a euphoric, heightened state of consciousness was sticky for Harris—once he came down from his high, he wanted it back. He left Stanford and began his quest.
If you haven’t noticed, spiritual memoirs abound these days, with The New York Times best-seller list crowded with titles about finding faith and losing it, about discovering value in the most harrowing of personal pursuits. Blockbusters like Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love and Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now, though wildly different, chronicle a shared search for meaning in an unknowable universe. Harris has said his new book is “Eckhart Tolle for smart people.” His audience is made up of many Americans who now call themselves “spiritual and not religious” and are interested in a larger cosmic experience not confined to one’s faith. He’s also embarking on a multicity lecture tour this month, where—for $219—participants can learn the mindfulness techniques that Harris claims to have released from their religious bondage.
Lest you think I’m condemning this, I should say that I, too, am working on a memoir about growing up in a quirky spiritual community—the Transcendental Meditation movement in Fairfield, Iowa—and am trying to reach my own conclusions about belief and organized religion and how to live a valuable, ethical life. As a former divinity school student, I was eager to meet Harris and get a handle on what made him move from his atheistic bully pulpit to writing long chapters on mindfulness.
We meet in the lobby of Shutters hotel in Santa Monica. Given how much attention the writer has received, there is surprisingly little published material about him. In a dark polo shirt and plain slacks, Harris, 47, is dressed like a man who wants to blend in. In person you will not hear the braying, harsh voice that screams at you from his books. He’s compact and muscular, thanks to many years of martial arts training. Because of security concerns, Harris tells me he doesn’t want anyone to know that he’s an Angeleno, and he certainly isn’t going to tell us about his life in the city—the comings and goings of a best-selling author and religion slayer.
To prepare for our meeting, I watched hours of YouTube footage showing Harris debating academics and religious leaders and seemingly passive journalists. Inevitably these devolve into sparring sessions with insults flying. I’m terrible in an argument, and in any case, I’d hoped to get somewhere else with Harris. When I tell him I don’t plan on a skirmish, he laughs and agrees he doesn’t want to fight. This turns out not to be true for either of us.
We talk about whom the book is for; Harris’s position, especially in the first half, will be familiar to his readers: denouncer. “To walk the aisles of any ‘spiritual’ bookstore is to confront the yearning and credulity of our species by the yard,” he writes. And yet, he tells me, there are people whose questions and needs deserve attention. “People have extraordinary experiences, which are often the most important experiences they have in life,” he says. “And it can seem that the only way to talk about them is in the context of one or another Iron Age religion or New Age philosophy. The problem for me is that if you wake up tomorrow morning having some remarkable change in your psychology—so you feel you now love your neighbor as yourself or you feel totally relieved of the neurosis that has plagued you your whole life—the only people in the culture who will take those claims seriously are representatives of some religion or New Age cult.
“The marriage of spirituality with religion is intellectually embarrassing, where you have people like Deepak Chopra or Eckhart Tolle,” he continues. “There’s a choice between pseudospirituality and pseudoscience. I’m trying to offer an alternative.”
Although Harris regards Waking Up, in part, as a “seeker’s memoir,” he shares little about his life in the book. It’s a somewhat clinical treatise on what he knows and thinks about religion, consciousness, spiritual traditions, and meditation. I wonder whether Waking Up might be found in the self-help aisle. “There’s definitely a self-help component to it,” he says over his pot of coffee. “I’m giving people an experiment to try in their own lives. But you don’t usually find in the self-help section the level of intellectual hairsplitting and science and philosophy that’s in this book and all my other books. I would be disappointed and annoyed if it were categorized as a self-help book instead of nonfiction.”
I ask him why he doesn’t like the self-help categorization, and his tone sharpens. “There’s an impression that those books are—rightly or wrongly—intellectually insubstantial,” he says. “And that’s often borne out. I’m interested in making a strong intellectual case to people skeptical of the whole enterprise. If it were in the self-help section of the bookstore, that is a section of the store that most serious people don’t wander into because they expect to find pabulum there.”
At this point I start laughing. Which, I should note, I immediately feel bad about. It is unprofessional and rude and intolerant of his beliefs, such as they are. But I find his contempt to be over-the-top.
Why are you laughing? he asks me. Well, I guess, the snobbery, I reply, already regretting where we’re headed. It turns out that snobbery versus elitism is one of the topics he’s written about and—no surprise—he has strong opinions. “There are tarot cards next to legitimate manuals on how to practice meditation next to theosophy,” he says, picking up steam. “It’s not snobbery to make those distinctions. There’s a huge percentage of Americans who have no interest in science. The fact is that New Age literature is bursting with pseudoscience and wishful thinking and sheer fantasy and intellectual frauds. It’s intellectual poison, much of it. When you have somebody writing about quantum mechanics and healing your body, you know you’ve opened the wrong door into the mansion of understanding.”
Snobbery, Harris says, is a “pejorative” word. “Snobbery is a bad thing. Snobbery is a failure to connect with the hopes and sufferings and efforts of other people,” he says. He wants me to know he’s not failing to connect. “I can finally take the time to put forth the positive case for the contemplative life because I’ve spent so much time criticizing the dogmas of religion. You can’t rush into talking about the virtues of Buddhist meditation without saying that we are paying a huge price for blithely accepting religious sectarianism.”
For all his talk about this book being a smart person’s guide to transcendent experience, I didn’t get a very expansive feeling from reading Waking Up. He writes that the major faiths—Islam, Christianity—consist of “ludicrous and divisive doctrines” that advocate “terrifying and debasing fictions.” When I think of a spiritual memoir, I tell him, I think of being open to new ideas and realities. But being vulnerable and open is not what Sam Harris is known for. “I don’t write warm and fuzzy books,” he tells me. “And I’m not especially warm and fuzzy as a person. I’m deeply committed to unraveling these intellectual problems that relate to our well-being and our failures to achieve it. As far as tone is concerned, I think impatience and a kind of prickly-seeming criticism is appropriate, given how far afield we are in this bamboozlement of religion. It’s just that 83 percent of the population of the United States thinks Jesus literally rose from the dead. And will be coming back. And half of those people think that he’ll be coming back in the next 50 years.”
After three hours of conversation, I turn off my tape recorder, which is around the time I can’t help myself: I push back. When I tell Harris I’m an agnostic, he tells me I’m just confused about the term. (Which according to the dictionary and/or my master’s degree in religious studies, I’m not—but whatever.)
“It’s a safe thing to say,” he tells me, his voice gentle yet cold, “but it’s usually ill considered. You aren’t agnostic about Zeus or Apollo or any of the thousands of dead gods who are no longer worshiped. The atheist says, ‘Bullshit.’ The agnostic says, ‘I don’t know. How could we possibly know about the validity of these claims?’ That is bullshit. If we’re talking specifically about Jesus being resurrected from death, or born of a virgin, or able to hear prayers, this entails a host of scientific claims—about biology, about telepathy, about human flight without the aid of technology. Are these claims that an agnostic wants to accept? Agnosticism is just a way of being polite in the face of people’s unjustified religious convictions. But if you maintained that attitude on other topics, you’d be considered an imbecile.”
Did he just call me stupid? I’m guessing that many of those “spiritual and not religious” readers Harris is pursuing are agnostic. Is this book, I ask Harris, an effort to correct them, too?
“I just wanted to bring it back to the experiential point,” he says. “It’s not about thinking new thoughts or understanding these things conceptually. It’s a matter of looking for it in one’s direct experience. Guidance is necessary. The experience is what it is, but you have to be shown how to look for it. It is difficult to say exactly how one points a finger at the moon—and it is especially difficult to do it in a book, where there is no opportunity for dialogue with the reader.”