This discussion continues at 21:25, when Sam criticizes atheists, scientists and secularists for failing to “connect to the character of those experiences” and for failing to “give some alternate explanation for them that is not entirely deflationary and demeaning and gives some warrant to the legitimacy of those experiences.” He implies that these experiences are somehow beyond the purview of science. I find that strange given Sam’s repeated emphasis on the value of science in studying mental states.
I’m not quite sure what he’s getting at here, and he doesn’t elaborate, but I don’t see why giving credence to these über-transcendent experiences as experiences says anything about a reality behind them. Yes, they might indeed change one’s personality and view of the world, but do any of us deny that?
I had similar experiences on various psychoactive substances when I was in college, and some of them were even transformative. The problem is not with us realizing that people can feel at one with the universe or, especially, at one with God; the problem comes with us taking this as evidence for some supernatural reality. What does it mean to say that an experience is legitimate? If someone thinks that he saw Jesus, I am prepared to believe that he thought that he saw Jesus, but I am not prepared to say that he really did see Jesus, nor that that constitutes any evidence for the existence of Jesus.
So my question for Sam would be this: “So if we accept that people do have these seriously transcendent experiences, what follows from that—beyond our simple desire to study the neurobiology behind them?”
These are all good points. I certainly didn’t mean to suggest that transcendent experiences are “beyond the purview of science.” On the contrary, I think they should be studied scientifically. And I don’t believe that these experiences tell us anything about the cosmos (I called Deepak Chopra a “charlatan” for making unfounded claims of this sort). Nor do they tell us anything about history, or about the veracity of scripture. However, these experiences do have a lot to say about the nature of the human mind—not about its neurobiology, per se, but about its qualitative character (both actual and potential).
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.
Many of my fellow atheists consider all talk of “spirituality” or “mysticism” to be synonymous with mental illness, conscious fraud, or self-deception. I have argued elsewhere that this is a problem—because millions of people have had experiences for which “spiritual” and “mystical” seem the only terms available.
Of course, many of the beliefs people form on the basis of these experiences are false. But the fact that most atheists will view a statement like Rumi’s, above, as a sign of the man’s gullibility or derangement, places a kernel of truth amid the rantings of even our most gullible and deranged opponents.
There are many forms of introspection and mental training that go by the name of “meditation,” and I have studied several over the years. As I occasionally speak about the benefits of these practices, people often write to ask which I recommend. Given my primary audience—students of science, secularists, nonbelievers, etc.—these queries usually come bundled with the worry that most traditional teachings about meditation must be intellectually suspect.
It is true that many contemplative paths ask one to entertain unfounded ideas about the nature of reality—or at the very least, to develop a fondness for the iconography and cultural artifacts of one or another religion. Even an organization like Transcendental Meditation (TM), which has spent decades self-consciously adapting itself for use by non-Hindus, can’t overcome the fact that its students must be given a Sanskrit mantra as the foundation of the practice. Ancient incantations present an impediment to many a rational mind (as does the fact that TM displays several signs of being a cult).
But not all contemplative paths kindle the same doubts. There are, in fact, many methods of meditation and “spiritual” inquiry that can greatly enhance our well being without requiring that we believe anything on insufficient evidence.
For beginners, I always recommend a technique called vipassana (Pali, “insight”), which comes from the oldest tradition of Buddhism, the Theravada. The advantage of vipassana is that it can be taught in an entirely secular way. Experts in this practice generally acquire their training in a Buddhist context, of course—and most retreat centers in the U.S. and Europe still teach its associated Buddhist philosophy. Nevertheless, this method of introspection can be brought within any secular or scientific context without embarrassment. The same cannot be said for most other forms of “spiritual” instruction.
(This is an edited transcript of a talk given at the Atheist Alliance conference in Washington D.C. on September 28th, 2007)
To begin, I’d like to take a moment to acknowledge just how strange it is that a meeting like this is even necessary. The year is 2007, and we have all taken time out of our busy lives, and many of us have traveled considerable distance, so that we can strategize about how best to live in a world in which most people believe in an imaginary God. America is now a nation of 300 million people, wielding more influence than any people in human history, and yet this influence is being steadily corrupted, and is surely waning, because 240 million of these people apparently believe that Jesus will return someday and orchestrate the end of the world with his magic powers. Of course, we may well wonder whether as many people believe these things as say they do. I know that Christopher [Hitchens] and Richard [Dawkins] are rather optimistic that our opinion polls are out of register with what people actually believe in the privacy of their own minds. But there is no question that most of our neighbors reliably profess that they believe these things, and such professions themselves have had a disastrous affect on our political discourse, on our public policy, on the teaching of science, and on our reputation in the world. And even if only a third or a quarter of our neighbors believe what most profess, it seems to me that we still have a problem worth worrying about.
Having now published two books critical of religious dogmatism, I have had many opportunities to marvel at the extent to which intelligent people still rise to the defense of all the divisive lunacy in our world that goes by the name of “religion.” While I have encountered many silly, vacuous, and even infuriating responses to my work, B. Alan Wallace’s review of my book, Letter to a Christian Nation, in the pages of this magazine has given me rare cause for astonishment. While Wallace purports to have exposed many “tragic” shortcomings in my book, I find that every one of his substantial criticisms has already been refuted by the book itself. Consequently, I am at a loss for how to reply. I will grant that Mr. Wallace appears to have read Letter to a Christian Nation, as he quotes and misquotes from it readily, sometimes without attribution. But he has not understood it. While it would, of course, be very sportsmanlike of me to concede that Wallace has put forward many fine points that demand my further reflection, he hasn’t—and I am left to reflect only on the evident limits of written communication. I have neither “idealized” science, nor denied the profundity of contemplative experience, nor committed any of the other sins with which Wallace seems so (over) eager to charge me. There is only one point on which Wallace has offered a useful criticism: I am now convinced that I should have used the phrase “do not accept the idea of God” rather than “reject the idea of God” when referring to the religious attitudes of our most elite scientists. There is undoubtedly a difference between these two phrases, and I am embarrassed not to have caught it prior to the book’s publication. And yet, it is a difference that does not make the slightest impact upon my argument as a whole. The truth is that Wallace’s reaction to my book is symptomatic of the very political correctness and intellectual apathy to which Letter to a Christian Nation is itself a response. While my book undoubtedly has many flaws, Wallace appears to be precisely the sort of reader who cannot find them.
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