Atheism has finally found its spiritual leader

You can stay atheist, but be spiritual.
You can stay atheist, but be spiritual.
Image: Reuters/Edgard Garrido
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The Godless have had a real PR problem for centuries. Up to this point in human history, atheism has lacked the wide, warm and consoling embrace that mystics, sages and religious leaders have been able to provide.

Not that not believing in God has gone without its high-profile proponents. Whether it was Karl Marx, Bertrand Russell, Sartre or Einstein, there have been plenty of role models. But it’s been a quiet tutelage, done so mostly in private, on the written page or at smoky back tables.

The only openly popular form of atheistic engagement comes at us like a freight train—strident, forceful and earth scorching. The widest acceptance of non-belief occurred under communism, in Stalinist Russia and Mao’s China. (We use the word “acceptance” very loosely here.)

More recently, there’s been the militant atheism espoused by the likes of writer-raconteur Christopher Hitchens, who died in 2011, and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, who once told a crowd to “ridicule” and “mock” people of faith. Mere believers are low-hanging fruit for Dawkins. He also regularly takes swipes at survivors (be it of child abuse or sexual assault), people with Down syndrome, you name it.

But there may be a parting of the waters. Last week author and neuroscientist Sam Harris’s Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality without Religion was published. Harris is one of the so-called four horsemen of new atheism, along with Hitchens, Dawkins, and philosopher Daniel Dennett. Though Harris doesn’t believe in a supreme power, he is advocating for spirituality, “boundless love” and a belief that “there is more to understanding the human condition than science and secular culture generally admit.”

Waking Up could be called a self-help book for atheists. Not that Harris would want us to do that; he doesn’t run with the touchy-feely crowd. Nevertheless, he’s writing for an audience (myself included) that needs some gentle guidance. We’re talking about a group of people who are primarily skeptics, fiercely individualistic, and mostly non-joiners—those who identify themselves by what they don’t believe in. This is not a crowd that easily rallies around any person or precept. About 10 years ago, an attempt was made amongst some atheists to embrace the label “The Brights,” but it didn’t have legs.

According to a 2012 report by Pew Research Center, between the 1970s and the early 1990s, the number of Americans with no ties to religion remained under 10%. But in the 1990s, that number began to rise, until 2012, when it had more than doubled, to 20%. These people claim no religious affiliation and have been categorized as “nones.” Included in this figure are 2.4% of Americans who call themselves atheists.

Harris speaks to all “nones” when he goes where few atheists have dared to tread, taking a path more commonly walked by the likes of shamans and New Age gurus: he is telling us to meditate, stop being judgmental, and even take mind-altering drugs (within reason). He references Rumi, the 13th century Sufi mystic:

 One day, you will find yourself outside this world which is like a mother’s womb. You will leave this earth to enter, while you are yet in the body, a vast expanse, and know that the words, “God’s earth is vast,” name this region from which the saints have come.

Would Harris consider joining Deepak Chopra for a follow-up to his 1998 CD, “A Gift of Love,” in which the latter recited Rumi poems with celebrity friends including Madonna and Demi Moore over tranquil music? I jest, but Harris is drinking from the same well.

I spent a year writing The Quantum Prophets: Richard Dawkins, Deepak Chopra and the Spooky Truth about their Battle over God, trying to trace the nature of the debate between these two sides. Chopra’s primary focus has been to narrow the gap between science and spiritualism for quite some time now, at the disgust of Dawkins and other materialists. But Harris may have successfully bridged the divide. Not totally. But he’s brought them closer. And that must make his fellow atheists very nervous.

Harris writes: “Many of my fellow atheists consider all talk of spirituality to be a sign of mental illness, conscious imposture, or self-deception. This is a problem, because millions of people have had experiences for which spiritual and mystical seem the only terms available.”

He wants us to meditate in order to attain a rational form of spirituality. When he talks of spirituality, he is attempting to give form to the concept of “cutting through the illusion of the self.” The inner “I” that we think is so special, he asserts, is a chimera.

According to materialists, our consciousness may actually be an emergent byproduct of the complex firings of a hundred billion neural networks. Thoughts are like weather patterns or salt; combine sodium and chloride and, bingo, you’ve got something salty. In a similar way, new thoughts arise. Still, how our consciousness actually arises remains hazy to science and materialists, such as Harris. It is therefore known as the “hard problem.”

Where Harris is pushing his materialist peers is out of the scientific lab where, he says, techniques like neural imaging will fail to find the internal eye of our minds. He asserts that disciplined, meditative introspection is a key tool to unpacking the originator of our thoughts, which is not to say that Harris believes the “I” is somehow connected to a soul or Chopra’s eternal stream of consciousness. He does not believe that any remaining questions about consciousness extend to the reality around us.

Whereas Chopra says that the brain, and all matter, is not fundamental but just an extension of a transcendent consciousness that permeates everything. Harris says that’s poppycock—the mind is a product of the brain.

The two took their dispute to Twitter recently:

But even though they disagree on the basics, they are trucking in similar references, recommendations, and language. And that could turn off many hard-core atheists.

Harris was in New York City last week promoting his book and he had an event at the Rubin Museum, which is dedicated to the art of the Himalayas, and is a meeting spot for advocates and devotees of Tibetan Buddhism. I was able to ask Harris, before he received a ceremonial khata scarf, if he was consciously trying to redirect the atheist movement.

“This has been coming for some time,” he told me, referring to his own line of reasoning, first sketched out in the 2004 book, End of Faith. “I am just trying to redirect our global conversation. I am not trying to change atheism.”

He appears to be wary of hoisting up a flag so that other atheists can follow him. Not that it would be in their nature to.

Harris reminded me that he was “in good company” because other materialists, such as Carl Sagan and Christopher Hitchens, had also appropriated similarly “powerful words,” such as spirituality.

He also suggested that our inability to reasonably discuss spiritual experience leads to worrisome conditions, such as the rise of a “religious crackpot.”

Over the past year, working on my book, I’ve witnessed the sort of bullheadeness he referred to. [Because I accepted a grant from the Chopra Foundation, Dawkins wouldn’t talk with me, although many of his allies did.]

In my interview with Daniel Dennett, I asked him, among other things, if there was any room to embrace the limitations of human knowledge and, in the same way that I can be moved by music, find transcendence in contemplating the unknown universe.

“The fact that Deepak Chopra seems to be a path worth exploring for you,” Dennett said to me. “I am not sure I am interested in what your mind has to offer.”

And Chopra is similarly intransigent.

“With Dawkins, I am just pissed off,” Chopra told me. “I am pissed off by his arrogance and his pretense of being a really good scientist,” Chopra said. “He is using his scientific credentials to literally go on a rampage.”

I suggested that it had to be more than that.

“I totally agree. It’s my last challenge,” he said. “It may be a very strange psychological issue.”

Or not so strange.

When he was six years old, living in India, his father went to Britain to pursue higher studies in medicine.

“My mother said that the first thing you need to do when get there is to get a white British guy to polish your shoes,” Chopra recalled. “My parents, they grew up under English colonialism. Two hundred years of enslavement, and he went to Southampton and made sure it was a white guy that had his shoes shined.”

His father sent them a letter, and Chopra recalls his mother reading it to them, and saying, “See, after 200 years, your father got his shoes shined.”

Now, Chopra can’t stand “these Oxford and Cambridge pseudo intellectuals,” he said. “India has a habit of aping them. There are more fans of Dawkins in India than anywhere else. It’s the post-colonial hangover.”

“I have to let it go,” he said to me, and he promised to do so many times to me. But he hasn’t.

If Chopra, the one who regularly espouses the law of detachment (one of his “seven spiritual laws of success”), can’t rise above the ill will, then what hope is there for the atheists?

And here’s where Harris steps in. Not that he’s the first atheist to be level headed about these things. Author Alain de Botton has been pushing for an “atheism 2.0” which borrows from the insights and tactics of religion.

“Dawkins is utterly consistent in rooting out intellectual error and utterly blind to the emotional dimensions of religiosity,” he told me. “I would desperately like him to reform his ideas.”

And Harris’s book comes after the publication this year of Living with a Wild God, tough-as-nails atheist Barbara Ehrenreich’s memoir in which she wrestles with a childhood mystical experience that transcends rational explanation. By the end, Ehrenreich embraces the fact that “experience—empirical experience—requires me to keep an open mind,” and a wonder at the emergent qualities in nature that suggest we don’t have a clue of what really governs our universe.

This is sounding like atheism may have turned a corner.

The title of Harris’s book, Waking Up, is a well-considered one. Waking from a dream is a powerful notion, very often used by mystics. Budhi actually means “to wake up.”

Lord knows pushing meditation and using the word “spirit” in a title could sell lots of books, but I do not think that this can be reduced to opportunism. Harris may be the first person to effectively talk the talk of the spiritualists and remain an authentic atheist.

What do atheists think? For one, evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne, a professor at the University of Chicago and a fierce attack dog against creationists, gave Waking Up a positive blurb and wrote on his website, “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.”

Harris told me that he didn’t know if Dawkins had read his book yet. But I couldn’t help notice that Dawkins gave Harris’s 2004 bestseller, The End of Faith, a thumbs up: “Read Sam Harris and wake up,” he wrote.

In just the title, Harris has declawed Dawkins’s benediction, originally expressed in typically scolding terms, and turned it into an inspirational calling for all of us.