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The secular faith of Sam Harris

By Jason Beale - posted Wednesday, 3 October 2018

In the last few years we've seen an explosion of popular books on philosophy and psychology, many aimed at stressed out millenials who are unfamiliar with the history of human thought. Such books repackage old wine in shiny new bottles and promise shortcuts to success. One of these bestselling books is a well-written but frustrating guide to spirituality by Sam Harris, a neuroscientist and outspoken commentator on science and the meaning of life. Part of the 'new athiest' movement, he is an avowed enemy of organised religion, and also, surprisingly, an opponent of conventional notions of the self. In fact, after the death of religion, he would prefer nothing more than the loss of one's "sense of being a separate self." (p. 43)

This is the agenda explored in his book, Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion. Of course, it is well known that meditation practice has a positive effect on both body and mind, as Harris describes. But he hopes for a more profound shift to occur. The main evidence he presents to demolish the impish inner self are the paradoxical studies of split brain patients, and the subjective accounts of various philosophers and mystics, including David Hume, Ramana Maharshi, Douglas Harding, and Tibetan master Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche. Determined to use a rational approach free of religious dogma, these different worldviews are brought together by Harris, who assumes they all point to a universal truth of no-self.

The notion that our lives are to a large extent fictional creations is of course nothing new. As Shakespeare noted, "All the world's a stage, And all the men and women merely players." Harris wants to share the good news that through meditation another option is available, one without the so-called baggage of religious belief. As he states in Waking Up:


"One can awaken from the dream of discursive thought and begin to see each arising image,

idea, or bit of language vanish without a trace. What remains is consciousness itself." (p. 37)

Waking up from the illusion of selfhood means we "recognize that which is common to all states of experience," and "realize those qualities that are intrinsic to consciousness." (p. 140) With our new found awareness we will find "wisdom and happiness" (p. 9) in a "boundless" experience, "at one with the cosmos." (p. 43) Such hazy ideas should be familiar to anyone who has heard of Alan Watts or listened to some old George Harrison records. Admittedly Harris is attempting to utter the ineffable, yet his statements are so lacking in context and real world implications that the reader is left stranded with a ticket to nowhere in particular.

Spiritual awakening in one form or another has been a common element of religions throughout history, including the Christian tradition, in which the New Testament describes the descent of the Holy Spirit on the first Christians at Pentecost. But since Harris is uncharitably negative towards Abrahamic religions as pathways of enlightenment, he gives short shrift to the gnostic, contemplative, and hermetic traditions of the West. He is also dismissive of other influential figures, such as the pioneering teacher George Gurdjieff, who explored esoteric traditions of East and West, and developed an original synthesis of practical application.

Still, Harris tells some amusing stories about the young Sam questing for transcendence through India and Nepal, sitting at the feet of spiritual teachers from various Hindu and Buddhist traditions. Having followed a similar path myself in the 1990s, exploring methods of awareness and self-enquiry, I acknowledge the conceptual framework he uses to describe the experience of meditation. What grates is the glibness of his assertion that our "conventional sense of self is an illusion," (p. 8) and his easy faith in a real experience of consciousness itself, as though this were not possibly just another subject-object relationship, however blissful.

Harris also avoids examining the many pitfalls of false enlightenment, recounted in the spiritual literature. These dangers would certainly complicate things for his audience, who one imagines are eager for a straightforward method, safely objective and scientific. And I assume the acknowledgment of tradition would bring him too close to the winds of organised religion. He describes meditation as a kind of romantic quest, strapped to our own mast, alone on the sea of consciousness. This approach to 'spirituality' is self-centred in its motivation in the first place, solipsistically excluding the presence of others in its calculations. I want to be free from my own thoughts, to explore consciousness for myself. Harris acknowledges he has been a spiritual magpie, avoiding long-term commitment to a particular spiritual path. He also asserts that the experience of waking up from the self "says a lot about the possibilities of human consciousness, but it says nothing about the universe at large." (p. 43) Where then is our true connection with others and with reality? Without God or a unifying principle of some kind, consciousness is just another mystery, and no less an illusion than the self that Harris seeks to overcome.


The praise that has been heaped on this fairly pedestrian and truncated account of spirituality is rather irksome, especially considering that countless more inspiring and authentic testaments exist of the spiritual search, and of the experience of enlightenment itself. Harris is basically hobbled by his secular bias, which turns his account into little more than a lifestyle meditation guide with some popular science and philosophy to bolster his materialistic outlook. He bravely claims "it is possible to radically transform our minds," (p. 48) then admits his own failure to 'wake up' for more than "moments at a time." (p. 11) He naively describes his experiences using recreational drugs as though these are valid tools for personal development. There are real risks of mental disturbance on the spiritual path, without the needless use of chemicals. Nor does Harris explore the thorny question of how to distinguish episodes of spiritual enlightenment from those of mental illness.

The ancient skills of meditation and mindfulness are the latest thing for a healthy, balanced lifestyle, but if your goal is a radical cutting of the ego itself, then the stakes are raised. Let's assume you wake up one day without a conscious self to guide your actions. You may indeed experience unalloyed peace and contentment, but how would you know you are not mentally deranged? Harris' own description of crazy gurus gives us little comfort here. In this situation, how would you guide yourself, and what moral compass would you use? A faith-based notion of a loving creator, inspiring and guiding us through a 'still small voice', is still a worthy consideration here: Letting go and letting God, as the adage goes. The alternative, that says 'Do what you will,' is too often a dangerous form of spiritual hubris.

Although an athiest, Harris still believes in "love, compassion, moral goodness, and self-transcendence." (p. 9) But if we are to be our own gods, dissolving the 'reality principle' of the ego through sustained meditation, then the door to moral and spiritual anarchy is left wide open. Harris' own book provides little insight into this dilemma. As the great Abrahamic religions such as Judaism and Christianity remind us, spirituality exists in a social context, and there is no escaping from the responsibilities of personhood on the spiritual path.

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This is a review of Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion (Simon & Schuster, 2014).


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Jason Beale is a Melbourne writer and artist.

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